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: Northern Red Oak

One of the trees which I believe was planted on purpose in prairie #1 is a Red Oak. Red Oaks are native to Wisconsin. They are distinguished from white oaks by the sharp points on their leaves (as opposed to the more rounded lobes of the white oaks, which seem to be preferred for planting around here). In the fall, the leaves will turn a beautiful, deep cranberry red in fall.

Wisconsin is not one of the prairie states, but large swathes of the state were covered in prairie before European settlement. Alongside the prairies were oak savannahs, which are a blend of pairie and woodland. They are estimated to have covered about 20% of our state. To be considered a savannah, a prairie must have less than 30% tree cover. As you can perhaps see from the photo above, the Western prairie patch at GDS may be on its way to exceeding that percentage, due to the volunteer trees that have taken root next to the red oak tree. Typically, the dominant trees in oak savannahs are, unsurprisingly, oaks but other trees pop up. This is a great resource to read up on the typical trees of the oak savannah.

In our prairie at GDS, rather than the black cherries, hickories and pines that tend to pop up in savannahs, we see aspen, field elm, and box elders. Perhaps this is due to the disturbed nature of the prairie and the mix of trees in the nearby hedgerow? The fact that these prairies have not been burned is also likely a factor. Wildfires played a hugely important role in both the prairies and the savannahs. Oaks dominated the savannahs because they were more likely than other trees to survive a wildfire. A lack of fires on restored prairies like the ones at GDS means other trees, which are not resistant to fire, can take hold and eventually turn the prairie into a woodland. This is where the western patch of prairie at GDS is headed.

Let’s get back to the red oak, though, and why it is important. Oak trees support a huge number of species. I’ve seen resources that list the number of species dependent on them from 2,300-4,000. Whoever is right, I think we can agree that it is a huge number! This includes everything from black bears down to micro-organisms. And don’t forget us humans! While few of us eat acorns anymore (although perhaps that number is growing with current interest in foraging), we do seek oak trees out for their strong, beautiful wood.

In addition to using the wood, oak leaves, bark and galls can be used to make dyes of varying shades of brown, grey, ochre and mauve.

The bark can also be used to make tea to treat arthritis, diarrhea, and colds. The inner bark can also be applied to the skin to reduce inflammation. In both cases, the tannins seem to be the active ingredient.

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.

Making Space: Monarchs and Milkweed

By now, you’ve probably read about the dire situation for Monarchs. Maybe you’ve wondered what you could do to help ensure that 20, 30, 40 years from now we will continue to marvel at the annual migration these beautiful butterflies make?

5 years ago I made a commitment to allow milkweed to grow in my garden wherever it happened to pop up as one small way I could help. As you probably already know if you have a garden, milkweed doesn’t always choose the most convenient spots to take hold. Common Milkweed is a big plant. It often reaches 3 feet tall and seems to like the margins – the front of flower borders and gardens that are really much too small for them. It can take a shift in thinking to be comfortable with the aesthetics.

Tall milkweed near the front of a flower bed
This well-established clump chose a better spot near the back of the bed, but still flops over into the walkway from time to time

I think you’ll agree that if we weigh helping an endangered species against having a perfect garden, the endangered species should win.

Where I may have to make an exception to my rule of never pulling milkweed is in the veggie garden. What started as one small plant has become a huge colony in one of my raised beds. This is the bed I’ve been using for salad greens and snap peas, so when the greens are growing in early summer the milkweed does not get in the way. By late summer, when the weather is too hot for growing salad greens or peas easily, the bed is taken over by milkweeds and sunflowers (planted by the birds, since my birdfeeder is close to the bed). This system has worked out well so far, giving me something from the garden in early summer and the wildlife in our yard something in late summer. The balance is starting to tip, though, and the day is coming when I will not have enough space to grow my early season veggies here. I think I will need to thin the milkweed next summer.

This raised bed has a mix of milkweed, sunflowers, and gourds this time of year. In early summer, it holds lettuce and snap peas. Can you see the monarchs?

I’m under no delusion that my milkweed is enough to save the monarchs, but it is one small thing I can do to make things a little easier for them. My house is in between Glacial Drumlin School, which has larger patches of milkweed, and McCarthy Park, with its acres and acres of prairie. I like to think of it as a stepping stone that helps monarchs and other wildlife move between the areas that hold food and shelter for them. If enough of my neighbors recognize that their yards can be a critical piece in helping the other species that call our community home, imagine what we can do! And how about you? Can you make your own space a stepping stone for monarchs? Could you commit to leaving milkweed grow where it will?

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

Plants of the GDS Prairie

I live a block away from a suburban middle school. When I first moved here, the school did not exist. Instead, there was a cornfield at the end of our block. I would stand with my toddler son at the edge of that field so we could watch the farmer drive his tractor amongst the corn stalks in the fall. We’d often find ears of corn in our front yard, and were never certain whether they’d been dropped by children or raccoons.

About 13 years ago, the corn fields were replaced by a middle school. Glacial Drumlim middle school (GDS) was built on the top of a large hill on the property, and the corn fields were converted into acres and acres of lawn. Ecologically speaking, I think it was initally a wash. While some wildlife has adapted to benefit from the corn fields and happily “steal” the grain in the fall, most of our native wildlife does not find anything of value in those fields. Likewise, the grass that replaced the field when the school was built gave very little to wildlife in terms of food or shelter.

That has changed over time. The retention pond, which initally held just water and was surrounded only by rocks, is now ringed with cattails, bulrushes and other native and non-native plants. Geese rest among the reeds in the spring, and red winged black birds swoop at visitors’ heads, warning them to stay away. When you walk along the edge of the pond now, every few steps bring the high-pitched, squeeky “ribbet” and subsequent splash of green frogs startled from their positions on the edge of the water. Fish (where did they come from?!?) swim over the landscape-fabric at the bottom. It isn’t exactly a natural enviornment, but it is starting to mimic one pretty well.

Diversity is increasing at the GDS retention pond

And the retention pond is not the only place where new habitats are forming. The middle school teachers have been slowly building patches of restored prairie in the large front lawn of the school. There are currently three patches of prairie, the largest of which is perhaps a third of an acre. They contain a fair number of native prairie plants at this point, and some invasives. What plants are there? Which are thriving? Which are struggling? How will the prairies change over time? Which plants grow near each other? Which do not? These are the questions I’m hoping to answer over time by observing the prairie. I’m starting with the prairie I call “GDS Prairie #1” – an imaginative name, I know. It is the westernmost prairie on the school grounds, furthest from the pond and closest to the neighboring farmer’s field. It appears to have the least biodiversity of the 3 prairie patches, so seems the easiest place to start. It is also the patch with the most trees, so I belive it was planned as an oak savannah rather than a open prairie. Oak savannahs were, at one time, very common in our area.

A mix of native and invasive plants calls the GDS prairie home.
Small oak, elm and poplar trees grow at the far end of the prairie
Which plants will we find growing and thriving here?

Over the next several weeks (months?) I plan to share pictures and plant profiles of some of the plants you see in the pictures here. Some are very familar to me. Some are not. Some are native to our area. Some are not. Let’s learn about them together!