Leaf of the Day: Crown Flower, stages one and two

I decided not to post each step-by-excruciatingly-slow-step of this assignment but today have put a couple of stages together. I only have 2 more days to get this done so, if it all goes wrong I just won’t have to worry too much.

I have spent quite some time looking at the flower with a magnifying glass and dissecting bits here and there. I have had two trips to the gardens this week for more specimens and today I watched the insects which delight in hanging out on this curious flower, but could not see any exciting pollen transference going on. These lovely red milkweed bugs are always around and are important pollinators.

and I was rewarded with a nice stripy monarch caterpillar too.

I would really like to add these two insects to the drawing as they are all inter dependent; the monarch butterfly only feeds on milkweeds and the red bugs are expert examples of “co- evolution”
The relationship of milkweed to all the milkweed insects – a relatively small guild of orange and black insects that advertise the fact by their coloration that they feed on a noxious plant that makes them unpalatable – is known as co-evolution.
Through the pressure of herbivory, plants are selected to become more toxic, by so doing they leave behind some of the herbivores (in evolutionary time) but not others. Those herbivores not left behind are those that are capable of overcoming the plant defenses and in some cases, such as the milkweed feeders, are able to incorporate the plant defenses as part of their own defense against predators.”

There were ladybirds as well…I am not quite sure how they fit into milkweed world.

And I did some painting too, Stage one and Stage two. It’s all very slow! Magnifying glass in one hand, paintbrush in the other… Hmmm not really me.
It’s quite a big painting, 16 x 11 inches.

Crown Flower: Stages One and Two

Leaf of the day: More Crown Flower Sketches and Study

Today more sketches of the Crown Flower, trying to concentrate while I listen with growing dismay to the swine flu reports. I am trying to be optimistic as in a week’s time I am due to fly home to the UK for a long visit…most of May. I am so looking forward to it, so I am just thinking positive.

I was looking in more detail at the flower head and the leaves. The structure of the flower is so odd. There are 5 sepals only seen from the underneath of the flower, then 5 petals which do at least look like petals. Then the central “crown” part which consists of 5 stamens, the buttress like structures, which are joined with the filaments to form a structure called a “gynostegium”, a fusion of the male and female parts of the flower.
This superb photo of a White Crown Flower by G D Carr from the Hawaii Education dept here shows the top of the crown, where you can see 5 little black points.

These I think are called the glands and if you can get a scalpel in at this point you might be able to extract the “pollinia”. These are the structures which hold the pollen, not loose pollen as we usually imagine, but flat waxy pollen drops, in pairs, attached to the gland.

Here is the scan I took yesterday after I had found the pollinia. It is tiny, just 2mm long, but scanning it at high res did give me a reasonable result.

Crown Flower Pollinia

Somehow… and I am still not entirely clear how this works with this particular flower, an insect has to attach one of these to its leg and transport it to another flower.

If you are interested in milkweeds, there is a stunning web page by Brian Johnston with wonderful macro/micro photos and a clear explanation of the intricate process of the pollination of the Common Milkweed Asclepias syriaca here. The milkweed structures are all basically similar but I think I might email him to ask if he can explain exactly how it works with this particular flower… How does the insect (probably one of the red milkweed bugs) get these particular pollen sacks on its leg???. I had to work quite hard to get the thing out, but then, as we say in Lincolnshire, I probably wasn’t holding my mouth right.. 🙂

More Crown Flower Sketches

Leaf of the Day: Crown Flower, First Sketches

There is no getting away from the fact that I am late with this next submission, but yesterday I did get 25 illustrations sent off to the book designer. But now I have to get down to it and with no procrastination time left I decided to make a study of the Crown Flower, Calotropis gigantea, or Giant Milkweed. It’s a strange season here, I remember well from last year how things are between flowering and seeding and, while I didn’t want to repeat myself, this curious plant has enough of a challenge to keep me interested. I drew its intriguing flower here last year. It is an odd one and so rigid in its structure as to be quite unflower like.

Because this assignment has to include some dissection I have spent most of the day cutting up a couple of flowers and trying to see the complicated pollination structures. Surprisingly I did find the TINY pollinarium, just 2 mm long, and put it on the scanner to enlarge it. The whole pollination process is very complicated .. more tomorrow.
Today just sketchbook work, thoughts about layout and some colour notes.

Giant Milkweed Sketches

Leaf of the Day:The Blood Flower

One reason for the slight change of focus is that I have a small exhibition coming up in April (where else but at Leu Gardens) and although it will be mostly of the drawings and some of the blog posts too I need a few bigger pieces to give it some focus, here and there. So one plan is to make some larger paintings/drawing of some of my favourite leaves and also to make some extra studies of some of the most interesting plants. The theme of the exhibition is really my “diary” of a year of drawings from the Gardens, and I still have a couple of months to go before I have seen a full year there.
Planning an exhibition is a bit like developing a painting from sketches. There is an awful lot of culling to do and then yawning gaps to fill, to make it an interesting experience, even for those who are not completely fascinated by plants. There is no dedicated exhibition room at Leu just a hallway, and not too much space, so I will have to be choosy.
So which leaf will I decide to draw? and how big? and what medium? Oh.. the agonies of decision making..and I am spoilt for choice…

Meanwhile …… I found this seed pod yesterday. It just happened to be growing in a tub by the Irish bar we often visit, for an end of cycle reward, but this plant grows everywhere here including in the butterfly garden at Leu. I just had to draw it! It’s from the Blood-flower Asclepias curassavica , or Mexican Butterfly Weed, or Scarlet Milkweed, one of the milkweed family Asclepiadaceae which I have drawn before here.

The Milkweeds are really worth returning to again and again because they have played an important, if risky, part in folk medicine, food stuffs and are beneficial to insects. They form a large genus in the family Asclepiadaceae that contain over 140 known species. “Asclepias”, after the Greek god of healing, because of the many unreliable medicinal uses for the plants, and this particular plant’s species name “curassavica” refers to Curacao, where the first specimens were collected.
The reason the Butterfly Garden is full of them at Leu is that Milkweeds provide the only food source for Monarch butterfly caterpillars. It is another interesting case (as with the artistolochias) where, through eating a poisonous plant, the caterpillars themselves become toxic and unpalatable to birds. The flowers are also an important nectar source for bees, ants and humming birds too, and in the past were used as a source of sweetness by the Native Americans and early settlers.

The “milk” of milkweed is its milky sap, which contains alkaloids and can be irritant and toxic, but despite their general toxicity, the plants had many medicinal uses. One species Asclepias tuberosa was known in Europe as the “pleurisy root”, and was used to relieve bronchial and pulmonary trouble. Here is a short piece from the USA Department of agriculture relating to its use by the indigenous peoples here.
“Butterfly milkweed has many medicinal uses. The Omahas and Poncas ate the raw root of the butterfly milkweed for bronchial and pulmonary troubles. Butterfly milkweed root was also chewed and placed on wounds, or dried, pulverized, and blown into wounds. The Omaha tribe used butterfly milkweed medicine for rites belonging to the Shell Society. The Dakotas used the butterfly milkweed as an emetic. The Menominis considered the butterfly milkweed, which they called the “deceiver,” one of their most important medicines.
(Hmm? Another possibly useful spell for my book …)

These delicate floating seeds are arranged so neatly and beautifully in their seed case but managed to spread themselves all over my room before I could draw them.
I also read that milkweed floss is coated with a waxy substance and has better insulation qualities than down feathers and that, amazingly, during World War 2, over 11 million pounds of milkweed floss were collected in the USA for various stuffing uses, as a substitute for kapok. I can’t conceive of how much volume even 1lb of these fluffy things would be, never mind 11 million.

At some time I must gather all these various bits of information together into one coherent post because the milkweeds, like many others, have such a fascinating story.
My drawing is of the pod and the few remaining seeds. I think my studio maybe carpeted with little milkweed plants later this spring which will make Ant happy.( yes.. he/she/it is still here!)

Milkweed pod.

Leaf of the Day: Crown Flower

Today’s drawing is a study of the very beautiful Crown Flower, calotropis gigantea, or giant milkweed. After a day of frustrating computer, phone and general technological horrors it was lovely to sit down and look at the exquisite structure of this flower which has waited patiently in the fridge for 4 days. Actually these little flowers are rather good at surviving as they are one of the flowers used for Hawaiian Leis and were said to be amongst the favourite flowers of Queen Liliuokalani who was the last reigning monarch of the Hawaiian islands.

Another Hawaii beauty from www.dakinedecor.com

Asclepias are named after Asklepios, the god of medicine in ancient Greece who professed to be able to raise the dead. It’s not entirely clear if he did this with Milkweeds as some are extremely toxic!
The God Hades, fearing an alarming loss of souls for his underworld kingdom, persuaded Zeus kill Asklepios. To cut a long and complicated story short, involving snakes, cyclops, Apollo and a host of other luminaries, Zeus eventually regretted his actions and immortalised Asklepios in the starry constellation known as the “serpent-bearer,” hence the serpent twined round the staff which is still the symbol of the medical profession.

The “design” of this flower is just beautiful, as is Rene Binet’s famous design for the entrance to the World Exposition in Paris, 1900. Binet had based his design on a drawing from the bologist Ernst Haeckel’s wonderful “Art Forms in Nature” which I am sure I will be returning to very soon.


Crown Flower