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Summer Flower Feature: Milkweed

We assume you’ve already heard that Milkweed is the only place where Monarch butterflies will lay their eggs. These butterflies typically lay just a single egg on a plant. While their dependence on this perennial flower is fascinating, it’s also a bit concerning. If we really care about our Monarch butterflies, we need to step up our Milkweed game. 

A caterpillar roams Swamp Milkweed (asclepias incarnata). All photos by Jennifer Ott.

Before you dive into all things Milkweed, brush up on your Monarch knowledge in our blog post. These gorgeous butterflies aren’t the only adorers of this plant; we also see bees, moths, flies, beetles, the Milkweed bug, the assassin bug, and other types of butterflies flocking to Milkweed in droves. It’s also quite attractive to many humans, so you could say it has a fan club…but most farmers are decidedly not part of that club.

Though Milkweed (genus Asclepias) has certainly served our ecosystem by providing a habitat for Monarchs and others, some species grow wildly and can take over if they’re in particular environments. One Milkweed plant produces about 25 seed pods. Each one is filled with up to 450 seeds, as well as a flossy material that allows each seed to catch the wind and travel anywhere in North America. Similar to the ubiquitous dandelion, this self-propagating plant reproduces like crazy, and spends a lot of time trying to take over the world (we wish it would). 

A monarch explores Butterfly Milkweed (asclepias tuberosa).

Understandably, industrial agriculture detests the way that Milkweed infiltrates their fields and interrupts their plans. It became common practice to grow herbicide-resistant crops, and after several decades, we began to understand the impact of this shift. 

As a result, what used to be an abundant resource for hungry creatures has been on the decline since the 50’s. It is commonly thought that Milkweed-killing herbicides are the main reason for this, but we also take into account the loss of their overwintering habitat, severe weather and less Milkweed during the winter and along their migratory path, and the use of insecticides. An article by National Geographic says, “The trend is particularly troubling because monarchs have long been considered both an indicator of our ecological health and a representative of pollinator populations.” 

There are around a hundred species of this plant, but only about 25% of them are suitable to host the noble Monarch. Monarchs happen to prefer native Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) over all the other options, so if you have an area of your property that doesn’t need to be tidy, let it grow freely. There are also a lot of unused spaces, like along the road, that can be used for native, beneficial plants such as this. Give those spaces some purpose and support our local pollinators. If you’d like to learn how to find and scatter Milkweed seeds in your area to help your local Monarchs thrive, check out this how-to

Native milkweed (asclepias syriaca).

Hot take: just because the word “weed” is in the name of this plant doesn’t mean it’s a weed! If you are growing Milkweed in your garden, opt for Butterfly Weed and Swamp Milkweed, because they will behave well in an urban landscape. Swamp Milkweed (the five-petaled pink/rose-purple flower pictured near the top) matures in mid-spring and lasts into early fall. Butterfly Milkweed (the brilliant orange blossom pictured next) is super low maintenance and looks gorgeous in a cut flower arrangement. These two species don’t need a lot of space and won’t grow aggressively like the native species does.

If everyone in your neighborhood planted one Milkweed plant in their garden, there would be more abundant pathways created for Monarch butterflies as they journey north every year. They would have more food and more opportunity to reproduce, and so many other local pollinators would be appreciative as well. Buy it from local Milkweed sellers, Detroit Butterfly Nursery and Rochester Pollinators. They host events, create educational material and share presentations that show us how to support monarchs.

Oudolf Gardens features a gorgeous Purple Milkweed (asclepias purpurascens).

We couldn’t just pick one fun fact to share about Milkweed throughout the ages, so we settled on our top three:

1. During World War II, children were recruited by the government to harvest Milkweed pods so that their floss (the silky material attached to each seed) could be used to fill soldiers’ life jackets. These fibers are naturally buoyant and water-repellant. To make one life preserver, forty pounds of Milkweed pods had to be gathered. All in all, children gathered about 2.5 million pounds of Milkweed by the end of their WWII harvesting career. 

A Milkweed pod, ready to take to the wind.

2. Milkweed leaves contain cardiac glycosides that happen to be poisonous to animals and humans. Somehow, Monarch caterpillars evolved to be the only creatures unaffected by this poison. They absorb it into their bodies, making them poisonous to predators. 

Even when they become beautiful butterflies and their diet changes to Milkweed nectar, they retain the toxins. If a predator attempts to munch on a Monarch, it will get sick, and then remember the butterfly’s coloring, meaning that it won’t try to snack on it again. Sometimes, beauty really is quite dangerous.

3. Milkweed has been a food source throughout history for several indigenous peoples in eastern and mid-western America. Once cooked, its shoots, leaves, tops, unripe buds, flowers, pods, the silk inside the pods, and roots are all edible. If you are interested in eating Milkweed, make sure to forage it ethically and sustainably, just like you would with any wild plant. 

If you’d like help making your garden more Monarch friendly, contact Jen for one-on-one garden coaching. You’ll grow your pollinator knowledge while interacting with a really lovely lady.

Until next thyme, 

My Thyme Gardens

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