Herself's Houston Garden

Conservation through cultivation

Milkweed evolves to better feed caterpillars

One of the most fascinating things about plant and insect evolution is the defenses they mount to protect themselves from prey. Often plants or insects become toxic to the critters that eat them. Sometimes they grow to look like closely related toxic plants.

Milkweed has taken a different approach. It grows faster to better feed the caterpillars. This is great news for us monarch lovers. Monarchs have evolved to resist the toxins in milkweed. Tracing milkweed back it appears milkweed has given up on growing better hairs and more toxic latex and decided to concentrate on faster growth and repair.

The adage that your enemies know your weaknesses best is especially true in the case of plants and predators that have co-evolved: As the predators evolve new strategies for attack, plants counter with their own unique defenses.

Milkweed is the latest example of this response, according to Cornell research suggesting that plant may be shifting away from elaborate defenses against specialized caterpillars toward a more energy-efficient approach. Genetic analysis reveals an evolutionary trend for milkweed plants away from resisting predators to putting more effort into repairing themselves faster than caterpillars — particularly the monarch butterfly caterpillar — can eat them. . . . [ read more Milkweed’s evolutionary approach to caterpillars: Counter appetite with fast repair]