The Monarch butterfly has etymological roots steeped in ancient Greek mythology. The Monarch butterfly and Milkweed plant are similar in that they are both named after Greek gods. Do you know what they are?
What's in a name?
First, let's talk about common names. Common names are simply the names that are used by everyone but can differ regionally! Monarchs have other common names, including milkweed butterfly, common tiger, wanderer, and black-veined brown.
Latin names are generally used by scientists who want to be sure they are referring to the correct species. Latin names are binomial, meaning a two-part name. The first part is the Genus to which the species belongs and the second part is the species name.
Legend holds that Prince William of Orange (later King William III) was so adored by some early European settlers to North America that they bequeathed the name “Monarch” to our very orange and regal butterfly in his honor.
Let's talk Latin!
Danaus plexippus (Monarch butterfly)
The monarch was originally described by Carl Linnaeus in his Systema Naturae of 1758 and placed in the genus Papilio. In 1780, Jan Krzysztof Kluk used the monarch as the type species for a new genus, Danaus. Although works published between at least 1883 and 1944 identified the species as Anosia plexippus, the genus name was merged into Danaus in 2005.
Danaus, a great-grandson of Zeus, was a mythical king, who founded Argos. Danaus had fifty daughters, the Danaides, who married the fifty sons of Danaus' twin brother, Aegyptus. In most versions of the myth, they were all ordered to kill their husbands on their wedding nights. All but one did this and they were condemned to spend eternity carrying water in a sieve or perforated device.
In the Metamorphoses, Ovid refers to the Danaides as the Belides after their grandfather Belus.
Robert Michael Pyle suggested Danaus is a masculinized version of Danaë, Danaus's great-great-granddaughter, to whom Zeus came as a shower of gold, which seemed to him a more appropriate source for the name of this butterfly. Afterall, the chrysalis of a monarch butterfly is gilded with gold!
Plexippus was one of the 50 sons of Aegyptus, the twin brother of Danaus, who was killed by one of Danaus' daughter, Amphicomone.
In Homeric Greek, his name means "one who urges on horses", i.e., "rider" or "charioteer" or "striker"
It isn't known why the Monarchs would be named after these particular Greek gods/goddesses. There are many interpretations and theories but we can't know for sure.
What about milkweed?
Asclepias tuberosa (Butterfly Milkweed)
The genus was formally described by Carl Linnaeus in 1753, who named it after Asclepius, the Greek god associate with medicine and healing. This could be due to the many healing properties of Milkweed.
Monarchs also use milkweed as medicine! According to research by University of Michigan researcher, Mark Hunter: "In the wild, parasite-infected female monarch butterflies sometimes seek out milkweed plants with high toxin levels and lay their eggs there, a process known as trans-generational self-medication."
Tuberosa is mashup of the Greek polianthes, meaning “multi-flowered,” and the Latin tuberosa, which means “swollen root,” or tuber.
Members of the genus, Asclepias, produce some of the most complex flowers in the plant kingdom, comparable to orchids in complexity. Five petals reflex backwards revealing a gynostegium surrounded by a five-membrane corona. The corona is composed of a five-paired hood-and-horn structure with the hood acting as a sheath for the inner horn. They are an especially beautiful flower!
Rod of Asclepias
In Greek mythology, the Rod of Asclepius, is a serpent-entwined rod wielded by the Greek god Asclepius. In modern times, it is the predominant symbol for medicine and health care, although it is sometimes confused with the similar caduceus, which has two snakes.
Asclepias tuberosa. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Asclepias_tuberosa
Pyle, Robert. 2014. Chasing Monarchs: Migrating with the Butterflies of Passage
Bitter pill: Monarchs, milkweed and self-medication in a changing world