Common Milkweed: A Monarch’s Friend, European Honeybee’s Murderer

The second in a series of gorgeous garden plants that are good for the environment. Let’s establish a pollinator garden full of beautiful native plants! (By request.)

Everyone loves the beautiful Monarch Butterfly, right? Well, like most pollinators in our corner of the world, Monarch Butterflies have been struggling in the last few decades. Milkweed has become rarer with increasing land development, but Monarchs can’t live without it!

Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) growing next to Purple Bergamot. A Monarch butterfly hangs out nearby. Pollinator garden at Benjamin Banneker Historical Park.

The adult Monarch Butterfly must lay her eggs on a Milkweed plant. If she lays them anywhere else, the caterpillars die. All of the caterpillars must eat Milkweed leaves to live. No Milkweed? No Monarch Butterflies.

To pack additional pollinator punch, you can plant other butterfly food next to the Milkweed. That way, once the caterpillar becomes a butterfly it has dinner right there, waiting, all summer long. Here you see the distinctive Monarch Butterfly hanging out on some Wild Bergamot, right next to two tall, healthy Milkweed plants. This pollinator garden in Benjamin Banneker Historical Park is well designed by a knowledgeable expert!

Just a note — although this article is about Common Milkweed, or Asclepias syriaca, there are several other kinds of highly attractive Milkweed that Monarch Butterflies like just as much. You can read about them here, at Monarch Joint Venture.

How to Recognize, Find, and Plant It

Asclepias syriaca growing along a road.

Common Milkweed, or Asclepias syriaca, is easy to recognize. Let’s take a look. It’s a tall and fleshy looking plant, found anywhere where weeds grow unmowed in the sun. It can grow from two to nearly seven feet tall (USDA). It’s everywhere in the area, along roads and in fields in the sun. They’re very tough and don’t require much watering. This time of year there are only a few bloomers — I’ve seen a few on highways but managed no pictures. Instead, you’ll mostly see these odd, whitish or greenish, spiny pods. Right now, the seeds are growing in there. They’re not ripe yet.

The pods themselves look rather alien. They can appear at the top or partway up the plant, and a single plant often has many pods.

Once ripe, the pods turn brown and split open. The brown oval seeds are attached to lovely fluffy white fibers that carry the seeds through the air on wind currents, dispersing them far and wide. What kid growing up around here wasn’t thrilled to find a cache of milkweed seeds to toss in the air and chase as they blow away? They’re also silky soft. It will be several more weeks before we start to see them around here.

The seeds are easy to plant. Sprinkle on moist soil and sprinkle a little more moist soil on top.

Mostly in late spring, Common Milkweed actually has some big purple-ish green-ish brown-ish flower clusters. Each flower is tiny, but it comes in clusters of a hundred or so. There aren’t any blooms around this area right now for me to capture good pictures. The color suggests that these blooms are pollinated by moths and butterflies — which seems to hold true according to this very detailed paper. The blooms can be quite attractive, and make a nice addition to your pollinator garden.

Monarch’s Friend, European Honeybee Murderer

Not only does this cool plant feed caterpillars, in early spring it feeds stuff with those purple flowers. Monarch butterflies apparently enjoy the flowers, too. That would make sense, as they need to be attracted to the plant in order to lay their eggs. Evolution is cool.

I was surprised to learn that the milkweed flower is terrifying to pollinate. Only large insects can pollinate it safely and effectively. Small ones, like bees, lose limbs, get stuck, and even die tangled in the complex flowers! That’s morbid and rather terrifying. How would you like to go sip on a flower and lose a leg as a result? That’s some horror-movie crazy right there. The author of that paper suggests more study is needed on the effect of Milkweed on honeybee populations.

Just a reminder — Monarch Butterflies are native to North America. European Honeybees are not. So yeah, I am not suggesting we go destroy the Milkweed to save the Honeybees. I’m pretty sure agricultural pesticides are a much bigger deal for the Honeybee population.

Make Cool Stuff?

I didn’t know it until recently, but this plant is actually very useful. The lovely fluffy dry seeds, along with the dry husks, make excellent firestarting material.

The stem is also useful. The leaves and stem are tough and dry. It’s possible to make solid rope from the white fibers in the stem. Remove the bark to get at the strong white fibers inside. Then, um, make rope. (USDA and Chad Clifford Video). I admit I didn’t have a clue how to make rope until I watched that video. Mr. Clifford has a very relaxing voice with a lovely Midwestern or Canadian accent of some sort. Also, very nice blue eyes. So, the video is quite pleasant to watch even if you don’t want to make rope. Because it’s, um, informative.

As a knitter and spinner, I wondered if it was possible to make usable yarn from Milkweed. I decided that the stem fibers would be too tough and rough to be useful for anything, and that the slippery short seed fluff would be impossible to spin due to length, frailty, and the difficulty of collecting a reasonable quantity. It sounds like it’s possible when blended with other fibers, though.

The seed fluff was also collected early United States settlers and used as insulation. Rather like goose down.

Slightly Toxic, Traditional Medicine

Very green Milkweed pods.

Milkweed itself is moderately toxic. The eponymous milky white sap carries cardiac glucosides and a number of other chemicals that, in large quantity, can poison humans and livestock.

However, those same chemicals are crucial to the survival of the Monarch Butterfly. Like most brightly colored animals, the Monarch is poisonous. It gets it’s poison as a caterpillar from the Milkweed plant and incorporates it. That poison keeps birds from eating it as an adult butterfly.

Milkweed Pods with dried flower heads still on. You can see all the little flowers connected by stems in a cluster.

The plant was also medicinally valuable to numerous Native American tribes. Different tribes used the plant for everything from a contraceptive to preventing hemorrhage after childbirth. It was also used to remove warts and ringworm. (USDA)

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