The first semi-cool days around October bring the annual Monarch butterfly migration through Dallas. Some of the Monarchs, coming from the northern states, follow a corridor through Dallas as they continue on their trip to their wintering grounds in the highlands of Mexico. These travelers need all the “fuel”/nectar they can get for their long journey. Even an urban backyard can provide a respite for them.
One of the Monarch’s favorite nectar plants is frostweed, Verbesina virginica . It is such an exceptional nectar plant, drawing in not only Monarchs but also Pipevine Butterflies and Great Purple Hairstreaks, that it has been selected as monitoring plant by Monarch Watch. Dale Clark, local butterfly rancher and founder of the Dallas County Lepidopterists’ Society, says that he has seen Monarch butterflies literally drop out of the sky when they see a patch of frostweed.
Frostweed, a perennial, is a member of the sunflower family. It will grow in sun but prefers shade or part shade. It requires very little water. Because it can grow up to six feet tall, it is best to use it in the back of a border and in a more natural, rather than formal, landscape. It has large green leaves on a straight, winged stem. Native Americans would sometimes roll the leaves and smoke them like tobacco. It blooms in late September through October in Dallas, making it a perfect nectar plant for the migrating Monarchs. The blooms are large composites, dirty white, and (at least to me) rather drab, but obviously Monarchs, bees, and small wasps see beyond superficial beauty and flock to it in droves. Even a small group of frostweed plants may be covered with four or five Monarch butterflies on each flower. It is a sight to behold!!
Like many plants, especially our native plants, frostweed has several common names. Karen H. Clary in Texas Parks and Wildlife magazine’s October 2012 issue says: “Frostweed has other names, including iceplant, white crownbeard, Indian tobacco and squawweed. Native Americans- including the Choctaw, Chickasaw, Creek and Mikasuki Seminole- used the leaves to treat fever, chills and body aches, and they used the roots as a purgative to treat indigestion. Mat t Turner, in Remarkable Plants of Texas, attributes the name “squawweed” to a specific use for women. Turner notes that the Kickapoo, as late as the 1970’s, were still using hot decoctions of the plant for near-term and post-partum issues, such as cleansing the womb and stanching excessive bleeding.”
Frostweed gets its most commonly used name from the fact that with the first freeze, its stem splits and sap oozes out of the winged stem. The sap freezes into fantastic ribbons forming mini-ice sculptures. The Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower center says that “the ice crystals formed on the stems of this and other plant species have been given many names – among them: ice ribbons, ice flowers, ice fringes, ice fingers, ice filaments, ice leaves, frost flowers, frost ribbons, frost freaks, frost beards, frost castles (Forrest M. Mims III http://www.forrestmims.org/gallery.html), crystallofolia (coined by Bob Harms at The University of Texas), rabbit ice and rabbit butter.”
There is one important fact to remember if you plant frostweed in your garden. Not only is the “frost” part of its name representative of one of its important characteristics, but the “weed” part is too. Just be careful, it will reseed freely—and probably in amended soils will spread rapidly by underground rhizomes. I have my frostweed growing at home in un-amended black gumbo clay soil under the shade of a huge cedar elm. I am also very careful to immediately cut off any flowers that are going to seed, bag them, and put them in the trash (not the compost pile). Doing this I have never had problems with frostweed’s being an uncontrollable “weed.”
So, think about doing your part to help the Monarch “fuel up” for their long journey to Mexico. Frostweed is a great plant for the Monarchs—but just take some extra precautions so it doesn’t become a “weed.”