Milkweeds and I have reconciled since the old days.
Once upon a time, I and other farm kids had a hate-hate relationship with the common milkweed. After leaving the farm and learning some biology, that developed into a love-hate affair as some of the better aspects of this plant began to evidence themselves, but the old grudge still simmered. Today I feel I have recovered fully and can now appreciate this amazing native for the gem it truly is, especially in our yard.
You see, the common milkweed, or Asclepias syriaca, is a hardy plant, easy to establish and hard to eliminate, but eliminate it is what we tried to do on the farm. It loved to grow in our soybean fields, back in the days when we hand-weeded the beans as a summer ritual. (You can read about that here.) You could chop out volunteer corn and hoe out thistles, but milkweed you had to pull and it was no wimp. Sometimes it felt like it pulled back.
But those are bygone times now, lingering resentments have burned themselves out, and there’s no denying that milkweeds are friends with benefits. Milkweed attracts all kinds of insect pollinators, including various bees, butterflies, moths, beetles, wasps, true bugs, weevils, and more, but it is probably best known for being the nursery and food of choice for Monarch butterfly caterpillars.
One summer several years ago our milkweeds hosted so many Monarch caterpillars that they literally stripped the plants down to their chassis, and as they did so, Nadia and I would hand-carry the larvae to other, fresher plants. We noted well over thirty caterpillars that year, but have no way of knowing how many made it into the air.
The common milkweed is found pretty much everywhere in North America east of the Rocky Mts., except for the driest plains, which we may be on our way to joining considering recent weather trends. Having said that, at the time of writing this we have had a couple weeks of seriously hot and dry days, and the milkweeds are still standing tall. They have bloomed and are forming pods, while many other natives around them are drooping. Even our pin oak looks dispirited.
The common milkweed is described by the Missouri Dept. of Conservation as “a sturdy, upright plant with broad leaves, milky sap, and clusters of pink or lilac flowers. Blooms May through August. Flowers are pink to lilac, very fragrant, borne in clusters terminally
and along the stems, arising from leaf axils. Leaves are broadly elliptical, rounded at base, to 6 inches long, with fine hairs underneath, on distinct leaf stalks. Fruit are large seedpods (follicles), elongated and covered with slender projects. When dry, these split to release hundreds of seeds, each attached to a “parachute” of white, silky, flossy hairs that can carry them on the wind.” It can grow up to six or more feet high and can form thick colonies in the wild (and in beanfields, usually causing a flurry of profanity upon encountering them).
Growing milkweed is a snap—just give it lots of sun and well drained soil, even poor soil, and it will pretty much take care of the rest. It can be grown easily from seed, but will also propagate from rhizomes. Take a little care where you put it, because it’s not known as a weed for nothing. It will spread. Also, remember its attraction for bees and wasps. We have a few plants around our mailbox and one day the mail lady pulled up in her van while I was there, handed me the mail and mentioned the abundance of bees. She looked a little nervous.
Bugs seem to like it for two reasons: the bitter milky sap (hence “milkweed”) seems to be rich in sucrose, while the toxic glycosides can concentrate in the organism consuming them, making them in turn toxic to potential predators. Every child learns that Monarch butterflies advertise their yuckiness with bright and distinctive colors, a strategy known as “aposematism” to let predators know that eating them is not a good idea.
But the plant itself can exact a price for its generosity. Consider this bee, happily feeding on the milkweed flowers:
The milkweed has a strategy for using its fans to pollinate other milkweeds. “Pollinia” are compact masses of pollen and the milkweed hides them inside its flowers, reachable through a slit-like opening. When an insect lands on the flower, its legs will often penetrate the slit and become entangled with the pollinia, which will hopefully be extracted and transferred to another milkweed. Often, however, the insect is unable to escape and meets its doom (like the bee above) dangling from the flower it had hoped to raid.
A. syriaca’s benefits do not stop at pleasing pollinators, but include uses as food, fiber, and medicines for us humans. The young shoots and leaves, flower buds and pods are all edible raw. In fact, I photographed a small, green pod just the other day, then munched it down—-it had no bitterness at all, just a nice mild veggie taste that would also be great simply steamed or stir-fried and dressed with olive oil, salt and pepper.
Be aware that there is a bit of controversy about the toxicity of this plant, stemming in part from the work of that master of natural cuisine, Euell Gibbons, although I have never heard of anyone getting sick from eating the young parts. Besides, who except insects and caterpillars would really want to eat the older bitter parts that hold the toxins? Potential effects are said to include dullness, weakness, bloating, and inability to stand or walk, but while I’ve been to Fourth of July celebrations that have produced similar symptoms, effects may continue on to fever, difficulty breathing, dilated pupils, spasms, and coma. So, caution is the word with this and any other food from nature.
Cordage is another old and common use for this plant : “Milkweeds supply tough fibers for making cords and ropes, and for weaving a coarse cloth. Milkweed stems are collected after the stalks senesce in late fall-early winter. The dried stalks are split open to release the fibers; milkweed fibers are sometimes mixed with fibers of Indian hemp (Apocynum cannabinum). The bark is removed and the fibers released by first rubbing between the hands and then drawing the fibers over a hard surface. Twisting the fiber opposite each other and twining them together forms the cord. Often this is accomplished by rolling the fibers on the thigh while twisting them together.”
Medicinally, the milkweed seems to be veritable cornucopia of remedies for everything from back-aches and ring-worms to bee stings and constipation. (The genus Asclepias is named for the Greek god of healing, who, like most Greek gods, seemed to enjoy spelling his name about twenty different ways.) Some Native Americans apparently even used it as a contraceptive , but you’re on your own there. Let us know how it works out for you.
For our yard, though, milkweed mainly serves as an attractive and hardy nursery for Monarchs and an excellent source of nectar and food for other pollinators. It is another native that gives a lot and asks for next to nothing. We highly recommend it as an addition to any native plant landscape.
Oh—about that epithet “syriaca”. Carl Linneaeus, originator of our taxonomic system, apparently thought that the type specimen for the common milkweed had come from the Orient instead of North America when he named it back in the 18th century. Whether or not he was suffering from “dullness” as a result of eating the wrong parts of the plant is not recorded in history, but we’re stuck with the name now. Best get used to it.
Note: Here are a couple other articles on plants that attract pollinators, courtesy of Nadia!