A milkweed on the shore: tracking down an elusive Danish plant

Since arriving in Odsherred towards the end of August I’ve been looking out for one plant in particular on our bicycle rides and hikes around the region. Vincetoxicum hirundinaria is a widespread asclepiad or milkweed: a member of the family Apocynaceae, subfamily Asclepiadoideae. This is a group of plants on which I’ve published quite a few research papers and which feature heavily in my book Pollinators & Pollination: Nature and Society.

So far the species has proven elusive and a few Danish ecologists that I’d spoken with told me they had never seen it in the wild. The GBIF account of the species shows a few populations in this part of Denmark but I wasn’t sure if they were old records of populations that no longer exist. But as of yesterday I can confirm that at least one of those populations is extant!

We had cycled out to the small town of Klint about 13km west of us, to see the glacial moraine landscape for which the area is famous and which gives Odsherred UNESCO Geopark status. As we approached the small fishing harbour at Klint I let out an excited shout to Karin who was just ahead of me: in amongst the roadside vegetation I’d spotted the distinctive and immediately recognisable yellow of Vincetoxicum hirundinaria in its autumnal hues! In the photos that follow you can see how well that yellow stands out against the colours of the other plants in the community.

At this time of the year the plant has ceased flowering, but the occasional swollen green seed pod was evidence of successful pollination of their morphologically complex flowers.

I was surprised at just how close to the sea the plants were growing; they must get inundated by sea water during stormy tidal surges.

So what is pollinating these flowers on this exposed shoreline? That’s a question that I want to pursue in the coming years. The Pollinators of Apocynaceae Database has remarkably few records of pollinators in this species, given how widespread it is. Flies certainly pollinate it, but there’s also records of wasps and bees as visitors, including bumblebees on flowers of a plant that I had in cultivation in Northampton. There’s a couple of other research groups in Scandinavia and Europe who are looking at the pollination ecology of the species and I’m hoping that we can collaborate on a study of spatial variation in its reproduction. Vincetoxicum is quite a large genus (around 150 species) and only around 10% of the species have been studied in any detail. But these studies are revealing a complex diversity of pollinators, including most recently, cockroaches in the Chinese species Vincetoxicum hainanense. I’m sure this intriguing group of plants has more fascinating stories to tell us about the ecology and evolution of its pollination systems.

FIGURE 4 from Xiong et al. (2020) Specialized cockroach pollination in the rare and
endangered plant Vincetoxicum hainanense in China. American Journal of Botany 107:
1355–1365.

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