Milkeeed: Plant a Flower, Feed a Monarch

Originally posted on Natural Midwest Gardener by Pat Hill

Asclepias species produce some of the most complex flowers in the plant kingdom, comparable to orchids in complexity: Whorled, Purple, Prairie, Antelope, Horse tail

All members of the genus Asclepias are appealing to Monarch butterflies and caterpillars. Nine species grow in Crawford County but only four are available at local nurseries. I’m going to show you six more today.  

Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) is, by far, the best butterfly attractant.   The dense, domed, dusty pink, delightfully fragrant blossoms bloom at the top of 3-5’ tall, branched, hairy stems in July and August.  Numerous opposite dark green leaves intervene between the blossoms. It is foundin a great variety of disturbed, unshaded habitats, along railroad tracks, roadsides, and in cornfields.  It is also found in prairies, dry pastures, and the foredunes of Lake Michigan.

Let’s take a look at other native milkweed that grows inthe area:

Swamp Milkweed (Asclepias incarnata)  at the Chicago Botanic Garden 7/25/08

Rounded clusters of dark and light pink flowers bloomat the top of2-4’ erect stems of the Swamp Milkweed from late June to late August.  Narrow lance-shaped leaves cover its smooth stems.  Itis common in wet meadows, marshes, and wetlands, but in my experience, is difficult to grow in the home garden.  It needs constant moisture to thrive, such as a marsh or a shoreline.  it didn’t do well in my rain garden, because the moisture fluctuated from wet to dry.  Perhaps others of you have had different experiences.

I found a lovely patch of Whorled Milkweed (Asclepias verticillata) growing in our church prairie last September, but did not get a decent photo.

Its light green, linear leaves grow in whorls around the short stems interspersed with clusters of fine, fragrant flowers, followed by shiny, slender, small pods. It is common in dry, grassy roadsides, pastures, railroad tracks, and abandoned fields.

Whorled MilkweedPhoto by Jack Shouba

Sally Wasowski tells us in Gardening with Prairie Plants that while Whorled Milkweed is considered weedy in the Chicago area, it displays masses of delicate white flowers within Little Bluestem prairies just west and south of us–sounds lovely, doesn’t it? .

I’ve never seen it in a garden situation, so I don’t know what to suggest.  If anyone has any experience or knowledge, please share.

These two milkweeds, along with Common Milkweed and Butterfly Weed are fairly easy to find in local commerce.  The following are more difficult to find and one will probably have to order them from a catalog.  If any of you readers are involved in the trade, take heed.

Iplanted Prairie Milkweed (Asclepias sullivantii) one year, many years ago, but it only lasted a couple of seasons.  One to several rounded flower clusters bloom at the top of the 3-4’ tall, smooth hairless plant. It is similar to Common Milkweed–its flowers, however, are larger and a deeper pink; it doesn’t grow as tall; and it is glabrous rather than pubescent.  Dick Young says it more succinctly: “It is a handsome, erect perennial similar to the Common Milkweed, without fuzz. “   In nature, Prairie Milkweed it is found in mesic or moist prairie or occasionally, roadside ditches.   it is rhizomatous, but waits several years before spreading under ground.

Sullivan’s Milkweed(note caterpillar)  Photo by Jack Shouba

I’ve never seen the uncommon Purple Milkweed (Asclepias purpurescens), but I definitely want to.   Dick Young calls it an elegant perennial with “strikingly beautiful purple-pink blossoms in late June and early July.”  It grows 2-3’ tall.  It is found in mesic prairie, but more often at woodland edges and thickets.

Purple MilkweedPhoto by Jack Shouba

Don’t confuse Poke Milkweed with Pokeweed.

Poke Milkweed (Asclepias exaltata) is a high quality, uncommon plant–its species name tells it all;  Pokeweed (Phytolacca americana), on the other hand, is, well, a weed.

Poke Milkweed, at 6’, is a stately woodland denizen. It is found along roads in semi-shade, says Swink & Wilhelm, but I have never seen it.   Its flowers are always described as drooping–but drooping sounds so sad and this is not a sad plant–it’s exalted, for goodness sake.  Should we call the umbel flowers nodding or dangling?  Dripping?  Cascading?  Or how about arching?  Hanging like Christmas tree ornaments?  Like fireworks exploding?

How would you describe the exquisite blossoms?   Take a look for yourself–isn’t it gorgeous?  I definitely want some of these.

Poke Milkweed   Photo by Jack Shouba

I rarely write about anything that I’m not familiar with, but this has been an exception anda real learning experience for me; I hope it has been for you, as well.

I would suggest that we all plant some of each kind. While only Monarch caterpillars eat the leaves of milkweed species, many, many other butterflies nectar on the flowers.

These less well-known native milkweeds will be a beautiful and useful addition to your gardens and are worth seeking out.

I want to thank Jack Shouba, once again, for his stunning photographs.  I can always count on Jack to supply the perfect photo when I don’t have one that is appropriate.

Jack is a retired high school biology and chemistry teacher, MortonArboretum Instructor, naturalist for Campton Township, and avid nature photographer.