Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Wednesday's Wildflower: Common Milkweed

Right now, there is a tall plant blooming in the fields adorned with fragrant purple globes that almost every pollinator finds irresistible.

Common Milkweed is just about as common as its name suggests, but just because it is familiar, that doesn't mean it isn't indispensable!

Almost everyone in the United States (except for those living in the Southwest) have encountered this jubilant plant marching across a field or waving at us from the roadsides.

Standing up to 5 feet tall, Common Milkweed has distinctive features in all seasons.

The opposite, oval-shaped leaves measure 4-6 inches long, and are smooth above and downy beneath.

If you break the midrib on a leaf (or any other part of the plant), a thick, sticky, milky sap will flow.

Its blooms waft a most delicious perfume, and can range in color from grayish lavender to dull rose.

Upon closer inspection, one can really appreciate the uniqueness of a Milkweed flower.

They have 5 reflexed corolla lobes, each with a "hood" to match its "horn."

These flowers are borne on umbels measuring 2-4 inches across.

After the blooms fade, a seed pod forms.

Within this capsule are thousands of seeds, just waiting for the pod to split open so they can spread their silky parachutes and ride the breeze.

Wikimedia Commons
Its Latin name is Asclepias syriaca.

Asclepias is after the Greek god Aesclepius - the god of doctors and medicine.

Syriaca means literally "of Syria." This name was actually the result of a blunder made by Linneaus himself, who mistakenly believed that Common Milkweed was indeed from the Middle East. This geographical mistake apparently wasn't enough to have the name changed, so syriaca it shall remain.

The genus Asclepias is such a colorful and diverse group that other members deserve mention.

Thirteen species of Asclepias can be found in Tennessee alone, with 140 existing nationwide.

There is White Milkweed (Asclepias veriegata),

US Forest Service
Green Milkweed (Asclepias viridiflora),

Minnesota Wildflowers
Purple Milkweed (Asclepias purpurascens),

Fourleaf Milkweed (Asclepias quadrifolia),

Swamp Milkweed (Asclepias incarnata),

 Whorled Milkweed,

Butterfly Weed (Asclepias tuberosa),

and probably the most unique, Antelope Horn Milkweed (Asclepias viridis).

Any of these would add interest and wildlife value to your yard if included in your gardens.

Many people don't realize that Common Milkweed also has value as a food source.

The shoots up to 8 inches tall can be boiled in two changes of water to rid them of their bitter, white sap. While it is toxic, the effects are largely mild, and would take large doses to really make somebody ill.

The cooked shoots are said to taste like green beans.

The unopened flower heads can be prepared in the same way, and are said to have a flavor akin to broccoli.

Once the flowers open, they can be parboiled for one minute (they contain far less sap) and added to pancake batter to make fritters, or even added to soups, stews and casseroles.

The flowers can also be boiled into a syrup, creating a brown sugar. One can also shake the dew-laden blooms into a bowl to collect "nectar water."

The immature seedpods can also be boiled in two changes of water and eaten as a vegetable.

The flavor of milkweed can range from delicious to horribly bitter, depending on the individual plants. (It is thought that cross-pollination with other Asclepias species is what affects the flavor.)

The Iroquois and Chippewas were known to consume Common Milkweed, eating the shoots, buds, flowers and immature seed pods. The flowers were often stewed, and even dried for winter use.

CAUTION: Milkweed should not be gathered and eaten without the guidance of an experienced forager. There are other members of this plant family that are VERY toxic that are similar in appearance, especially in the shoot stage.

Dogbane and Butterfly Weed are two of these.

Indian Hemp (Apocynum cannabinum) is a type of Dogbane commonly found throughout TN.

Every part of the Milkweed plant has had medicinal uses, historically.

The milky sap was used to remove warts.

The root has be used to treat kidney stones and asthma.

Some Native American tribeswomen would use the pounded roots as a contraceptive.

The leaves and latex were used to treat some types of cancers and tumors.

Cooked stems were made into a poultice and used externally to treat rheumatic joints.

The Cherokee would drink a root tea for a backaches, the treatment of venereal diseases and as a laxative. 

In addition to food and medicine, Common Milkweed has also had some great practical uses throughout human history.

A Hoary Edge butterfly flitting around milkweed
The Cherokee would use the plant fibers for bow strings.

Plant fibers collected from the stems in the fall could also be used for textiles, paper and twine.

During World War II, children were employed to collect milkweed seed pods.


The fluffy silk fibers are incredibly buoyant, and were used to fill life preservers and flight suits for American soldiers.

During this time scientists also attempted to manufacture rubber from the sap, but were not successful.

The seed floss also has the unique properties of simultaneously repelling water and absorbing oils, which make it useful for mopping up oil spills at sea.

As if all of the aforementioned attributes weren't enough to endear you to Asclepias, there is one other creature that is wholly dependent on this plant for its survival:

The Monarch Butterfly.

A Monarch's larvae feed on the leaves of Asclepias species, and nothing else, and are especially partial to those of Common Milkweed.

A female Monarch laying eggs on milkweed shoots, nearly the second they appeared.
A Monarch caterpillar
Milkweed is unpalatable to almost every other species because of that milky sap that runs through it. It deters most other insects, which often get stuck in the sap once they puncture the plant.

The bitter alkaloids are transferred to the caterpillars, imparting an even more bitter taste to the adult butterflies. This offers protection from predators, especially birds. A young bird that makes the mistake of eating a Monarch butterfly for the first time will soon find itself violently ill. They learn quickly to merely tag the hindwings of any butterflies they wish to eat, just to test the flavor (this is why you will sometimes see butterflies with missing wing parts).

This Great-spangled Fritillary has been tagged by several birds.
In recent years, Monarchs have been in significant decline. It's estimated that their populations have plummeted by as much as 90 % in the last 20 years.

The main culprit is believed to be, not surprisingly, genetically modified crops. In addition to the liberal use of glyphosate pesticides, Monsanto scientists insert a bacteria (Bacillus thuringiensis) into corn germplasm to kill pests like corn borers and earworms. Because corn is wind pollinated, there is no way to control the escape of this bacteria. Unfortunately for Monarchs, and every other caterpillar, this can have a detrimental effect. (Interestingly, it is easily purchased and touted as a "natural pesticide," and indeed it is found in the soil, but the circumstances we have created are anything but natural, and the environment is paying the price.) According to the EPA, studies conducted on this practice do not suggest toxicity in not-target butterflies, such as Monarchs. Their reasoning is that milkweed doesn't grow close to crop fields (um...... really??? Last time I checked milkweed likes roadsides, and I have frequently seen it growing alongside to crops). 

Oh, look! What is this growing in the middle of a GMO soybean field?
In addition to this, the absence of milkweed due to habitat loss can stop them in their tracks on their migration northwards.

The other big factor is loss of their wintering habitats. Monarchs are the only insect known to truly migrate. They have several broods in a season, with each generation moving further north, following the milkweed bloom. The final generation is known as the "super generation," living longer and flying stronger than its predecessors. They make the long trip south to California and Mexico, where they spend several months waiting out the winter. The Eastern Monarchs travel to the Sierra Madre mountains of Mexico, while the Western Monarchs fly to the California coast, near Santa Cruz and and San Diego. Some fly as far as 3,000 miles!

Map of North America showing the fall migration patterns of the Monarch butterfly.
Monarch fall migration patterns. USGS National Atlas.
They form massive colonies, hanging off the trees in a magnificent and memorable display.

World Wildlife Federation
Once the weather warms and the first milkweed plants emerge, they fly north to lay their eggs and then die, passing the torch to the next generation.

Map of North America showing the spring and summer migration patterns of the Monarch butterfly.
Spring and summer migration patterns. USGS National Atlas.
While pesticides are the biggest issue, you can help by either planting milkweed or allowing milkweed patches and native wildflowers to remain in areas on your property.

Just to document a personal experience....

There are several stands of Common Milkweed growing in our area, and we planted it, as well as Butterfly Weed, in the park butterfly garden several years ago.

One of the last summer Monarchs we ever saw, back in 2009
We were regularly getting Monarchs passing through the park, utilizing the milkweeds for their larval food source.

A few years ago, we stopped seeing them. 

I have checked and re-checked the plants for caterpillars to no avail, and we don't see any adult butterflies nectaring until they are passing through on their Southern migration in the fall.

A Fall Monarch searching for nectar in the faded Echinacea
It is very disheartening, but this has been the same sad story statewide, and throughout much of the country.

If you happen to live in Tennessee, the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency is distributing free seed packets that include a nectar wildflower mix in addition to milkweed. You can read more about it here:

For those of you located outside of Tennessee, Roundstone Native Seed Company is a fantastic source for native seed and seed mixes, and offers seed mixtures specific to your region.

While Milkweed is essential for Monarch reproduction, make sure you include plenty of other nectaring plants in your fields and gardens.

The latest research indicates that the biggest limiting factor for Monarch survival isn't simply a lack of milkweed as previously thought.

The biggest declines in Monarch numbers occur during the final generation's southern migration in the Fall when they are done reproducing and the milkweed has long since faded.

So what is causing this decline? Researchers believe the primary limiting factor is a lack of late-season nectar plants. Think Goldenrod, asters, Frostweed, Tall Ironweed,

These Autumn blooms are critical for fueling their journey south, and most of them appear on their own if you simply allow fields and forest edges to grow.

So while milkweed is still an awesome plant to propagate and promote, it isn't the whole picture.

Even if we aren't seeing Monarchs visiting the milkweed these days, just about every other pollinator goes crazy for its sweet nectar. Most species of butterfly, bee, wasp, many species of beetles and of course, hummingbirds, benefit greatly from milkweed flowers.

A Northern Cloudywing enjoying some milkweed nectar
As for me, there is hardly any fragrance I enjoy more once the summer starts to crank up.

Find yourself a patch of milkweed and show it some love; this amazing plant deserves no small praise.


Late last summer, we discovered the first Monarch larvae on our local milkweed plants in several years! The biggest reason for their recent population decline in the East was due to a hard freeze in their wintering habitat in Mexico, which killed off millions of Monarchs. At least locally, their breeding population appears to be on the incline once again. We'll keep providing great reproductive and nectaring habitat throughout the seasons!

Be sure to join us for next Wednesday's Wildflower!

Click here to read about last week's wildflower: Prairie Rose

Medicinal information herein is shared strictly for anecdotal purposes. Do not attempt to self-medicate with wild herbs. Please consult a doctor first.

Next flower->


Eat The Weeds

Plants for a Future

USDA Forest Service: Monarch Butterfly Migration and Overwintering

Wildflowers of Tennessee, the Ohio Valley and the Southern Appalachians - Dennis Horn & Tavia Cathcart

Wildflowers of Tennessee - Jack B. Carman

Identifying and Harvesting Edible and Medicinal Plants in Wild (and Not So Wild) Places - "Wildman" Steve Brill


  1. So many beautiful pictures. :)

  2. This is a great post, Phacelia! Your photos are beautiful. You're right that the Southwest doesn't see a lot of milkweed, but apparently there are a few kinds that grow in my neck of the woods, since we are in the Monarch migration path. I'm hoping to get some growing in my yard at some point.

    Thanks for linking up at the Weekend Blog Hop at My Flagstaff Home!


  3. Wow, great info! That is so sad about the Monarch losses though. Is it easy to control Milkweed? I'll totally plant some when we move as long as it doesn't take over like Pokeweed. I tear that stuff out constantly and every year it is back and I honestly hate it. Takes over with the huge leaves and kills the baby Oaks and stuff trying to come up. Great post though- I learned so much I didn't know about milkweed, which I don't see commonly in our area at all (unlike my nemesis, old poke) :P

    1. You really want to plant common milkweed somewhere you don't mind it spreading. It isn't as invasive as say, peppermint; but it does keep popping up in unexpected places.

      Butterfly weed, on the other hand, maintains a compact growth habit, and while it spreads some, it isn't nearly as invasive as milkweed can be. So it does better in a flower bed, so long as it has plenty of sun, and you don't mulch it.

      Poke can definitely take over! It's hard to pull up, too.

    2. It is so hard to pull up! My husband had to go after a big one with a pickaxe and a shovel, but it was probably 7 feet tall in the back of the property. ARGH.

      In the meantime, I'm going to the nursery this weekend to look for some plants, so I'll see if they have anything like butterfly weed. I used to have bee balm around here somewhere, but I haven't seen it in a minute so I'm not sure what happened. Thanks!

  4. Very interesting article! Congratulations on being chosen as a Featured Post on Wildcrafting Wednesday #185!

  5. Wow, I had no idea that there were so many different types of milkweed! Great post, and lovely pictures!

    Thanks for sharing your post with Green Thumb Thursday. I hope you'll join us again this week!


  6. Very information article on Milkweed, beautiful pictures.
    Thank you for sharing with the Clever Chicks Blog Hop! I hope you’ll join us again next week!

    Kathy Shea Mormino
    The Chicken Chick

  7. I remember my grandmother showing me milkweed (I believe) as a child... she'd take us for walks in the woods and I always enjoyed that. I don't recall it having any flowers, but she would break the leaf off to show us. Maybe I just never noticed them in the right season.

    Thanks for linking up at #SustainableSundays.

  8. While I knew milkweed is popular with Monarchs, I didn't know they were edible. Really informative post.

  9. Thank you for sharing your deep knowledge. I believe yours is by far the best one I have ever read about milkweeds. Looking forwards to read more from your posts in the future.