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: Blackeyed Susan

Scientific Name: Rudbekia hirta

Black eyed Susan growing in the Western Prairie at GDS

It’s time to talk about a native plant in the prairie. Black-eyed Susan’s cheerful face is a familiar sight in Midwestern prairies and gardens. In the prairie it grows as single stems amongst the grass; move it to your garden, and it forms lovely clumps. It is easy to grow and will migrate across your garden beds, moving in wherever it is comfortable. While it is usually considered a biennial or short-lived perennial, it is very hardy and reseeds easily. I have several patches in my yard that all came from a single plant I purchased 17 years ago. The original clump is still in place. Because it is such a cheery and adaptive plant, it has spread from its traditional home in the central and eastern parst of the US to all 48 contiguous states.

Black eyed susan is apparently a great plant for bees and butterflies, but I have to admit I rarely see either landing on them in my yard. Perhaps they just prefer the purple coneflower that I grow in masses nearby and would use the black-eyed susans if they needed to? Or maybe I’m just not looking at the right times? I do see finches grabbing seeds from the dried seed heads in the early fall.

They make a lovely long lasting cut flower and the seedheads, which look like small black pompoms, can be used as an accent in dried flower arrangements. Perhaps I’ll save a few this year and add them to my Christmas planters? You can also apparently make a yellow dye from the plant, although photos I’ve seen of actual dyes made from the flowers ranged from grey to green, so I’m not entirely certain what parts of the plant you would need to use for a yellow dye.

Like echinacea, Black-eyed Susans are used in herbal medicines to treat colds and the flu. It is considered an immunity booster and anti-bacterial. The seeds are apparently poisonous, so only the leaves, petals and rools are used.

In the garden, the Black-Eyed Susan looks charming with phlox, hyssop and sweetspire.

Plants of the Prairie: Fleabane

Scientific Name: Erigeron annuus, Erigeron philadelphicus and Erigeron strigosus

While there are almost 200 species of fleabane in North America, three types are most common here in Wisconsin: Common (Erigeron annuus), Philadelphia (Erigeron philadelphicus and this kind, Eastern Daisy (Erigeron strigosus). While it is difficult to tell varieties apart, I believe that the varieties in the prairie are Eastern Daisy and Philadelphia.

Fleabane is a pioneer species, which means that it thrives in an environment that has been highly disturbed. Pioneer species can sometimes mimic the behavior of, and be mistaken for, invasive species because they can be so successful in an area that in out of balance. That’s a fancy way of saying they sometimes act and look like a weed when they are actually doing very important work getting an area ready for pickier natives. Other examples of pioneer species that you might be familiar with are aspens and fireweed.

Pollinators love fleabane, so in addition to getting the soil ready for other natives, they provide a good source of nectar.

Traditionally, Fleabane was used as an eyewash, an astringent, a mild stimulant and a treatment for sore throats, inflamation and menstural issues.

You can eat the leaves and flowers, but they are said to be bitter and can be hairy depending on the variety you choose. I’ll give it a try one of these days and report back.

Plants of the Prairie: White Sweetclover

Scientific Name: Melilotus albus

White Sweetclover is the rangy white flower in this picture with the small oval shaped leaves.

White Sweetclover is a biennial native to Europe and Asia. It is not a native here in Wisconsin, and in fact is considered one of the 30 most invasive plants here. There are probably between 100 and 200 white Sweetclover plants in prairie #3, most at the edge between the prairie and the school lawn. The plants grow close to one another, but don’t seem to form the type of thick patches that can really crowd out the natives – at least not yet. Like other clovers, the white Sweetclover is a legume so it fixes nitrogen in the soil. For this reason, farmers will sometimes include it in their cover crop mix. It could very well be that the farmer who owned the land before it became a school planted it here in between corn crops. I did not see any Sweetclover in the other 2 prairie patches at the school

According to, the entire plant is edible. Shoots and leaves of young plants can be prepared like asparagus and as salad greens, respectively. The best time to harvest them is as 1st year plants, before they’ve had a chance to flower. Once they’ve started flowering, they turn bitter. The flowers are edible and supposedly taste like vanilla. The plants are supposed to have a sweet/pleasant smell.

Here is my take on the edibility. The plants I tried were already flowering, so it was not surprising that the tiny bite of leaf out in the field was quite bitter and did not taste like vanilla. It was not bitter to the point of being totally unpleasant, though, and did smell faintly of vanilla and freshly mown grass. I would not seek it out for eating again as a salad green unless I can find it before it flowers.

I did pick a couple foot long sections of the plant to bring home and make tea. (Normally I would not pick flowers from a prairie patch that isn’t my own, but I make exceptions for invasives.) Dried, the plant had a very pleasant, sweet vanilla scent. I placed the dried leaves and stems in a teapot, poured water that was just below boiling temp over, and let steep for 5 minutes. When I opened the pot, the lovely vanilla scent was gone, replaced with something that smelled of fresh green beans. The tea was a little sweet and beany, not bitter at all. Again, not something I think I would seek out, but I also would accept a cup if offered. I might also try again with different water temperatures and steep times. I think a cold steeping might preserve the vanilla scent and flavor.

The stems of the plant do hold their sweet scent for a long time. I laid a few springs on my desk and days later when I sat down, their pleasant, sweet smell still wafted to my nose. While they aren’t the showiest flower around, they’d make a great addition to a mixed bouquet for their scent alone. And again, since they are an invasive here, I wouldn’t feel bad picking them.

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