Bring on the Monarchs.
Common milkweed. How we’ve felt about this plant is right there in the name, isn’t it? A common weed. But, like other milkweeds, it has an uncommon ability to support one of our most showy butterflies, the monarch. It’s sap, mildly poisonous to humans and many species of animals and birds, is tolerated by the monarch who absorbs the poison as a caterpillar munching on the plant’s leaves and becomes, itself, poisonous. What a super power!
Here in Cottage Grove, you’ll find common milkweed all over in the sun. It grows happily in the GDS school prairie patches, McCarthy Park, in undeveloped lots along the roadside, and in my garden. Like an increasing number of gardeners, I allow it to grow wherever it arrives in the garden to make space for the monarchs. It doesn’t always choose the best spots. A tall plant (3′ tall), it seems to often choose to grow at the very front of the garden bed, where it towers over the other border plants. It likes the small raingarden at the end of my driveway. It loves the veggie garden beds. Where it does not seem to come up is in the back of the garden beds where it would fit right in to the design. A common weed it may be, but it likes to grow where it can get uncommon attention.
Common milkweed’s range covers most of the eastern part of the U.S., except the southernmost states, and the prairie states. It is common in Wisconsin.
Per Peterson’s Field Guides: Wildflowers Northeaster/North-central North America:
“A stout, downy plant. The domed, often somewhat drooping flower clusters are mostly in the leaf axils and vary in subtle shades of dustry rose, lavender, and dull brownish purple. The pointed gray-green seedpods can be told from those of our other milkweeds by their warty aspect. 3-5 ft. Roadsides, dry soil, fields. S. Canada south. June-Aug.
Monarch caterpillars, milkweed tiger moth caterpillars, and milkweed bugs can all eat the sap of the milkweed without becoming poisoned themselves, but few other insects or animals can.
Bees, other butterflies and flies can all safely use the flower’s nectar.
Yes, some milkweeds are mildly toxic to humans, but Common Milkweed does not appear to be. Per Samuel Thayer’s The Forager’s Harvest, milkweed is not bitter and is generally described as tasty by attendees of this foraging workshops. He attributes the pervasive information that milkweed must be boiled with three changes of water to writings by Euell Gibbon’s and may have been a case of mistaken identity, since there is a type of dogbane and a blunt-leaved milkweed that look similar.
Per Thayer, harvest shoots in late spring when the maples are just getting their summer leaves. Boil until tender, about 20 minutes. No change of water is necessary. Likewise, imature flower buds and seed pods which are 2/3rds grown can be harvested, cooked and eaten. Watch out for baby monarch caterpillars on the flower buds!
Milkweed sap can be used to treat warts.
Milkweed roots and shoots can be used to treat diarrhea.
The fluff from milkweed pods can be used as stuffing.
Pods were used as Christmas tree decorations in the past.
Pods can also be used in fairy gardens.
Stems are hollow and make good tubes for solitary bee houses.
Per the Rodale Herb Book, milkweed can be used to make dye colors ranging from ice-green to orange.
No references found yet.
Diseases and Threats
Milkweed’s biggest threat is the lost of wild spaces, like hedgerows and prairies, where they grow and thrive.
Coming this summer…