Saturday, November 26, 2011

Crown Flower (Calotropis gigantea)



It is said that the Crown Flower ( also called Giant Milkweed) was the favorite flower of Queen Liliuokalani who was the last monarch of Hawaii.  Maybe she liked the crown shape of the flower because it does not have any fragrance.


I know that the emphasis of this blog so far has been on food producing plants but my favorite plants are those that are useful and those that are tough.  The Crown Flower wins on both these counts.  This tree will grow in hot, dry sandy areas.  I have seen a variety of it growing in the desert in Dubai.  The one I have in my garden is growing in a dry sandy area where other trees have failed to thrive. 
                                                                               
The tree I have now I started as a cutting in a gallon pot of potting mix.  When it was well rooted I transferred it to a 3 gallon pot, pinched the tips, and fertilised it well so that it would grow into a nice fat plant.  I then planted it out in the garden during the rainy months of winter to get established.  It was a little slow at first but is now doing well with just an occasional water during dry periods and an occasional trim to keep it from getting too spread out.

There are two main uses of the Crown Flower tree.  First, as a member of the milkweed family, it is a host plant for the Monarch butterfly.  It gives me great pleasure to watch all the butterflies in the garden and to know that I am helping to support them.  Around December the butterflies show up in large numbers to lay their eggs on the underside of the Crown Flower leaves.  These hatch into tiny caterpillars who will munch and munch until they are big and fat and a couple of inches long.  Then they will climb down the tree and go off looking for a fence, or another shrub, or the side of the house to attach to.  They hang upside down in a J shape and turn into a  beautiful green chrysalis trimmed with gold..  After about 14 days they will hatch into Monarch butterflies.  I enjoy watching them and so do all the grandchildren and the neighbors kids

The only down side to all this process of nature going on is that the caterpillars will chew down every leaf and the tree will look very naked and straggly for a month or so but it will revive just fine.  I usually trim the tree at this time when the caterpillars have done with the leaves and the new growth has not yet come out.  Because of the sad appearance of the tree for those short few months I decided to grown my present Crown Flower tree at the back of our garden instead of in the front yard.  One visitor horrified me by suggesting I should be using some sort of insecticide on the caterpillars!


The other big use for the Crown Flowers tree is of course all the leis we make in Hawaii with the flowers.  There are purple and white flowered varieties of Crown Flower but the purple flowers do seem to get used here  more.  Actually I rather like mixing the two colors while making leis or I add some other flowers for fragrance.  Sometimes the petals are removed from the flower center to make a smaller flower for a rope type lei.  Professional lei makers have some very intricate designs using Crown Flowers.

When picking the flowers to make leis, I always be very careful about wearing a hat so I do not get the trees white sap dripped in my eyes.  The sap can cause temporary blindness.  I noticed in Thailand that all the Crown Flower trees there were kept trimmed to about waist height.  It would make for easier picking but also much safer for the eyes.  The picked flowers then need to be soaked in cool water for a few hours to get the white sap off them as well as giving them a last perk up drink.  Crown Flowers are a very long lasting in the fridge so are good for leis that are being sent to the mainland.

Aloha

PS......added in 2013 after a trip to Israel.  While there, I actually saw a Crown Flower in fruit and so I am adding a few pictures as we never see them in fruit in Hawaii.  I guess we do not have the pollinator.  The Crown Flower in the Israel was just slightly different in flower, it was the same as the one I saw in Dubai, but still a very close cousin.  The  green seed pods are huge like the size of an orange but when you pick them they are as light as a balloon.  I stomped on one and it popped loudly and inside was just a small core.  On the tree were a few older shriveled looking pods...and then a cluster of seed ....like little dandelion seeds with umbrella shaped fluff on them.  The  fruited laden tree was quite a different aspect of the plant for me to see.  It was growing wild near the entrance to Masada which is a very dry, hot area.  Here are few of  my photos of it.







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38 comments:

  1. Fascinating Stella - the bit about the sap causing temp blindness? A little scary!. Im a horrid garden person. Never tried and prob never will, but i enjoy having flowers in my home and all around me. Enjoy reading about someone who DOES have a way with living things.

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    1. The whole point for the Monarch's evolved dependence on this singular plant family (milkweeds) is for that particular potent poison, scarfed up by their caterpillars, that quickly teaches birds to avoid them.

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  2. Where can i find crownflower in Kaneohe or on Oahu both to harvest to feed catapillars and to plant?

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    1. There are nurseries in Waimanalo that carry them unsprayed. Call a bunch and you'll find them.

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  3. Hi Michael. I am afraid your best bet to harvest leaves is just looking at gardens as you drive down the road....try the older type homes where grandparents live as they are the ones that will be growing it to get the flowers for lei making. You find plants in nurseries sometimes or it may be better to get cuttings from someones tree and get them going. The trees are fast growers. Aloha

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    1. Where? Please help...need for my classroom...

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  5. Thanks for those offering suggestions of where to find Crown Flower plants and leaves. I am realizing that a lot of the visitors to this blog article on Crown Flower are teachers who are caring for monarch butterflies in their classrooms so any help given is good. Aloha

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  6. Visiting Kauai for the first time I found Queen Flower on Waimea Beach. It has seed pods, fresh and dry. The size of the tree and pods really surprised me. Today we found examples along the beach north of Kapa'a.

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    1. Wow, interesting. Does that mean a new pollinating bug has shown up in Kauai? mmmmmm Will be on the watch.

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  7. I found pods on a tree in Kailua-Kona (BI) last August, so something is pollenating them. I grabbed a handful of the fluffy seeds before they blew away. I'll be curious to see if they germinate six months later.

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  8. This is getting really interesting. I still have not seen any on Oahu. Thanks for the comment and visiting my blog.

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    1. I have a bunch in my back yard and butterflies lady their eggs.

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  9. After talking to a botanist about the fruiting seen, as commented on above, I am wondering if the fruit seen is the exact same crown flower used for lei or is it the type I saw in the Middle East which has slightly different and smaller flowers. Would be glad to hear from anyone who can comment. Thanks.

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    1. I have been picking the crown flowers my whole life for lei and am pretty sure I have not seen the lei variety with a seed pod (to the best of my memory) It seems to only be on the smaller flowered plants.

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  10. Researchers in Thailand claim to have isolated a compound extracted from the plant which blocks a process essential to cancer cell growth.

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  11. I live on the Big Island of Hawaii and have seen many seed pods on what seems to be a more wild variety. The flowers are a bicolor white with lavender tips and much smaller,it seems to seed easily and there are quite a few along the Kohala Coast.

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  12. Thanks Alison.....very interesting to hear about this. Yes, it sounds like it is the wild type I saw in the middle east and with those seeds blowing around on the wind it is going to be spreading.

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  13. aloha...we have one growing in our front yard and it is HUGE. the trunk is as big around as my arm and the seed pods are bigger than grapefruit. I thought I could use the flowers for lei and now I am happy to get more the history. Pretty crazy and cool looking plant

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  14. Yep....they can get big and spread out wide. Just as well they can survive being chopped back.

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  15. Free pickings here in ewa beach! Contact truechoice1@gmail.com

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  16. Thanks Brian. It might be a grandma making a lei or a school teacher needing leaves for her classroom caterpillars that contact you.

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  17. I have a small potted plant but all of its leaves are turning yellow and staring to fall of. I'm not sure what to do. How much water and sunlight do these plants need?

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  18. Hi Allison....this may come a bit late to save your plant but these plants like sun. I would not be trying to grow it indoors in case you are. With watering....more plants in pots die from too much water than not enough. The secret is to water well but do not let the plant sit in water in the saucer and then let the soil dry out some before watering again. I would also put any plant in the ground to grow or in a really big pot. aloha

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  19. Hi Stella,
    Valerie here on Maui with questions:
    Do the Monarchs ever migrate from here? They are eating up all my milkweed.
    Does milkweed get a disease that puts holes in the leaves? The holes look different from the holes done by the cats.
    I think the monarchs I am raising now have OE as many of the chysalises are not even forming butterflies or the butterfly wings are deformed. Is there OE on Oahu?

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  20. Hi Valerie....first of all....I have not idea what OE is but some of the chrysalises do not hatch out but just turn black. As to the little round holes in the leaves....I think it is from tiny caterpillars that do not grow to maturity...especially during the warm months...it is only after Christmas that the Monarch seems to be in full production mode. I think the Monarch butterflies in Hawaii stay here.

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  21. Thanks for your reply. OE (Ophryocysitis Elektroscirrha) is a microscopic parasite that is on the eggs from an infected female. For a few months my monarch were hatching like rabbits. Then some chrysalises would produce bent winged butterflies that couldn't fly and now many of the chysalises just turn black. I've read that the Florida Monarch population is 100% infected because, like Hawaii, the Monarchs don't migrate and the disease continues to live on the milkweed in the eggs.
    I'm glad that you are not seeing signs of OE on Oahu.
    Yes, the holes on my milkweed are probably from the tiny cats as I cannot find any info on diseases of the milkweed itself.
    Thank you for doing this site.
    Valerie

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  22. My crysalis turned black due to a parasitic fly or wasp. It stopped when I moved mature cats into hatching cages so they could form chrysalis without the wasps stinging them. I'm on the Big Island.

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  23. Oh, so good to know. I did see a wasp today hovering around my milkweed. All my chrysalises are formed inside a butterfly "castle"-it looks like a netted small laundry basket. Wow, three islands represented! How do you have enough milkweed to feed your cats? I planted one of my milkweeds down below and didn't remove the cats and they champed it to the ground in less than 2 weeks.

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  24. My neighbors let me harvest branches of crown flower for my cats. I was trying to bump up the population after the 2007 monarch crash & they were happy to help butterfly recovery. By asking multiple neighbors I could take a few branches from each yard & not decimate one lone bush. Every CF I've planted has been chomped to the ground :) The most recent has a net to protect it until it's established.

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  25. Sounds like you've been raising monarchs for a good while. Neighbors here consider MW- well, a weed and get rid of it. I find large plants in fields but many of these areas are going to be developed soon. I'm hoping the monarch goes somewhat dormant for a while so the MW that I grow can recover. I try to transfer any cats I find to the castles.

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  26. Okay! You guys are way into this butterfly production and know much more than me....I just watch them. Keep up the good work. Note to self: monarch butterfly people call caterpillars "cats". :o)

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  27. You helped me tremendously. I thought my MW was diseased and was wasting so much time trying to find out what was wrong. Thanks for guiding me to look closer and with glasses on. I can now transfer the babies to a critter container and save my MW from looking like it has been used for target practice.
    Mahalo

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  28. I am having great trouble with my crown flower plants. I am wondering how to get them to grow? now I have pests on them and I think it's tiny ants so I sprayed them with soapy water and I hope that helps. Otherwise the leaves turn yellow and fall off... what is the best way to grow these? Thanks, Jennifer

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  29. Hi Jennifer. Soapy water sounds good because if there are ants is usually means that the ants are harvesting the sweet sticky stuff coming of aphids that are on the plant. It is the aphids that may cause the most damage. Are your plants in pots or the ground. This is a plant that needs a big root space and the dead leaves may just be that they are not getting enough water so are unloading leaves to handle it. On the other hand, they do not like wet feet...ie. sitting in water or soggy ground. A bit of fertilizer might give a quick pickup so that it grows more leaves again.

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