Plants of the Prairie: Common Milkweed

Scientific Name: Asclepias syrica

Another really important plant in the prairie is Common Milkweed. With its thick, round stems, large leaves and beautiful flowerheads, it is hard to confuse with our other native plants. And you only have to see the seedpods open in the fall once to understand where they acquired the “weed” part of their name.

The west prairie at GDS has a rather large stand of Common Milkweed. It may be the most prolific native plant out there. You can see it here surrounded by grasses, asters, Butterfly Weed, and thistles.

You probably already know that they are an important host plant for Monarchs (and the plant where I’m most likely to find Monarch eggs and caterpillars in the garden – they really do love these plants). But did you know they are also very fragrant? The next time you see one in bloom, take a minute to smell the flowers. They have a lovely vanilla scent.

Did you also know that the seeds were used to fill life preservers during WWII when other fillings were scarce? When I was a child my grandfather still had a couple WWII life preservers that he kept in the boat box on his speed boat. We hated having to wear them because they were bulky and heavy compared to the modern life preservers that had been added to the box more recently. I wonder now whether they were filled with milkweed fluff? There is apparently a company, Ogallalla down, that used it to make a down alternative. Maybe something to consider if you are in the market for down?

A little more info on the Milkweed plant, if you are interested: Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca).

Plants of the Prairie: Butterfly Milkweed

Scientific Name: Asclepius tuberosa

Butterfly Weed in GDS Prairie #1

Butterfly Weed, or Butterfly Milkweed is a real stunner in the prairie. The bold, orange flowers can be seen from hundreds of yards away in mid-summer, conspicuous in a sea of green. When grown in the garden, you’d be forgiven for mistaking them for a cultivated flower. Unlike common milkweed, it does not bleed white sap when broken and its stems are covered in small hairs. The leaves are slender and lance-shaped, radiating directly from the stems of the plant.

Despite its name, I have not found a Monarch egg or caterpillar on my Butterfly Weed, and haven’t noticed that any butterflies particularly like the flowers. Curious, I did a little research. An ARS study noticed the same: Tellus | Which Milkweeds Do Monarch Butterflies Prefer? | USDA-ARS. When it comes to Milkweed, they found, Monarchs prefer the Common and Swamp varieties, even if humans are drawn to the fabulous orange flowers of Butterfly Weed.

Butterfly weed is gorgeous in the garden and apparently makes for a long-lasting cut flower (although I personally always enjoy it in place in the garden). It can be used to make medicines for lung issues. In terms of toxicity, sources from Penn State indicate that its toxins are more likely to cause neurological issues than GI issues, in case that is reassuring to you. I’m pretty sure it isn’t to me. In The Forager’s Harvest, Samuel Thayer claims that with the right cooking and preparation most people can eat milkweed without issue and that it can make for a delicious wild plant.

Butterfly Weed in the Garden