Iridescent emerald, the color intense and glistening as a freshly polished car hood, adorned the back of a beetle munching on the slender leaf of a tall plant with red stems next to the bike trail.
I stopped to take a picture with my phone so I could identify it later. The plant, dogbane, is a favorite of mine in the dense growth of vegetation next to the Jim Asfoor trail that Gretchen and I walk and ride frequently in downtown La Crosse.
Oddly, the move to La Crosse from a mostly wooded lot in the country seems to have brought us closer to nature — the verdant and diverse landscape along the La Crosse River that flows past the condominium where we live.
Back at the “house,” I learned that the beetle is the dogbane leaf beetle, a critter as interesting and complex as the plant it occupies.
The beetles are not affected by eating the toxic sap that the plant produces. Females lay a couple of fertilized eggs in a pile of their own feces and attach them to the underside of a leaf.
Once hatched, the beetle’s larvae chew their way out of the feces pile and then drop to the base of the plant, burrowing down to feed on the roots. Since that may kill the plant, it seems an odd payback for the host’s services.
Dogbane is also known as Indian hemp and, according to the U.S Agriculture Department plant guide, the fiber in the stems was particularly useful to Native Americans in making nets for fishing, for string and ropes, and even weaving rough cloth.
Interesting. One of the uses envisioned for a return to growing of industrial hemp — another natural source of fiber — is making biodegradable clothing. Too bad we didn’t stick to hemp and cotton instead of turning to non degradable, petroleum-based polyester. But I digress.
The guide also gives high marks to dogbane as a nectar and pollen source for bees and butterflies because it begins to bloom — a cluster of tiny flowers similar to milkweed — in early summer, often before other flowering plants.
And, in addition to a long list of medicinal uses by Native Americans, the plant is attractive to other insects such as the tachinid fly that are helpful in controlling harmful insects such as stink bugs, squash bugs, gypsy moths and Japanese beetles.
The USDA also notes that the “extensive root system on Indian hemp provides good slope and stream bank stabilization and erosion control functions. “
That probably explains why the plant is among the native species that the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources called for in the plantings along the trail and river bank in the redevelopment project that included the condominium where we live.
The ethnobotany description in the USDA guide offers this fascinating traditional use: “A wash made of crushed root can be shampooed into the hair to stimulate growth, remove dandruff and head lice. The milky juice can remove warts.” Who knew?
The fluff connected to the dogbane seeds to aid their distribution is similar to that of milkweed and is used by birds for nest building.
And, according to Mary Anne Borge, a nature blogger (The Natural Web:Exploring Nature’s Connections) because dogbanes contain some of the same chemical compounds that monarch caterpillars take from milkweed, there is some speculation that they may use dogbane as an alternate source of their protection from predators.
And if that weren’t enough in services provided by this plant, the dogbane leaves in fall turn a bright yellow on their tall red stems, making them one of the brightest features along the trail.
Lately politicians and others have used the phrase “in the weeds” in a way that suggests an undesirable diversion into the dense and difficult details of a subject.
On the contrary, I enjoy delving into the weeds along the trail where there are examples of the richness and complexity of nature — nature in the heart of the city.