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Milkweed Mania

Updated: Aug 16, 2021

Typical Wildlife Meadow

Milkweeds get their name from the fact that many, but not all of the family, have milky-white sap that oozes from the broken edges of their stems or leaves. Not all milkweeds have milky sap and other plants such as prickly lettuce, mulberry, and dogbane have milky sap as well but are not milkweeds.

Common Milkweed

My earliest experience with the common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) was attempting to hoe them out of the acres of peppers and tomatoes that my parents grew. Although we chopped them off below ground level, in a short few days they re-sprouted from underground roots. Consequently at the edges of the plots and along the forest edges, they were simply allowed to grow. I loved to hunt for insects among them as they were always attractive to a variety of butterflies, bees, and beetles. A few years later in elementary school, I learned of the close connection between the milkweed and the monarch butterfly.

Common Milkweed detal

Monarch resting

The common milkweed is often seen in large colonies along the grassy shoulders of rural roads and tax ditch right of ways. The plants usually have a stiff upright, unbranched stem 3-4 feet high with pairs of thick oval leaves along the stem. If a stem is broken, a thick, white latex flows out and is toxic to many insects that would potentially eat them. The exception is the monarch butterfly larva which can safely eat the leaves and also becomes toxic itself. A few species of beetles can feed on the leaves, and they become poisonous as well. Since they don’t have to worry about birds as predators these beetles are brightly colored to advertise their bad taste. The milkweed beetle (Tetraopes sp.) is a striking orange and black while the dogbane beetle (Chrysochus auratus) is a metallic green-gold. I often discovered the dogbane beetle on milkweeds instead of dogbane, since the plants are somewhat related. The dogbane beetle gets my vote for the most beautiful of all beetles (see photos).

Milkweed Beetle
Dogbane Beetle

The flowers of the milkweed family usually occur in balls or domed-shaped heads. Each individual floret has five descending petals attached to a disk with the five standard petals fused to form a little cup or corona. Sometimes the standards and falls are contrasting colors. These flowers contain abundant nectar to reward the insect pollinators. In the case of the common milkweed they emit a lovely perfume that smells of lilacs. After pollination the flowers fall and a large, warty pod grows, matures, and then finally splits open to release its flat seeds attached to silken parachutes. They can be carried many miles on the wind. We used to help them along by breaking apart any ripe pods that we found, letting the seeds fly from our arms held high. During WWII the silk from milkweeds was considered as a stuffing for life vests as a substitute for kapok, derived from a South American tree, which was in short supply. You can see lots of common milkweeds in the tall grass Morton meadow across from Abbott’s Mill Nature Center. The staff works to increase and cultivate those plants as food for the increasingly scarce monarch butterfly. As you travel any of our secondary roads, you likely will see from time to time, a striking, orange, flat-topped flowering milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa) growing on the grassy shoulders.

Butterfly-weed Milkweed
Butterfly-weed detail

This is the aptly named butterfly-weed because it is irresistible to all types of butterflies. It grows quite well in the xeric, sunny roadside habitat. It is a favorite of many and difficult to confuse with any other milkweed and one of the few truly orange wildflowers. It too is a good source of nectar and frequently is included in wildlife meadow seed mixes. This hardy perennial is slow to start from seed and takes several years to mature, however, nursery catalogs as well as local garden centers often offer small potted seedlings. Butterfly-weed bloom is normally bright orange but red or yellow sports are sometimes


Yellow sport

Look for orange butterfly-weed in the Morton Meadow as well.

Around the edges of our local ponds and on the islets and hummocks in swamps and wet ground, Swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) grows.

Swamp Milkweed
Swamp Milkweed detail

The inflorescence is somewhat smaller than common milkweed and is a lovely soft pink. The leaves are slender and more pointed. Because of its habitat, it can easily be identified, too. Swamp milkweed is best viewed from a canoe or kayak, however, many plants grow near the trailside bordering Blair’s pond along the dam and near the old mill site.

Good binoculars make the viewing experience even better for a close-

up look. Lots of butterflies find it attractive such as swallowtails, skippers, red admirals, and fritillaries.

Contrasting with the wet soil preference of the swamp milkweed is the

blunt-leaved milkweed (Asclepias amplexicaulis).

Blunt-leafed Milkweed plant
Blunt-leafed Milkweed detail

This is a personal favorite of mine because of the unusual coloring of the spherical flower clusters; each floret has green falls and a magenta corona. I have found it growing in dappled shade along some of the driest portions of the trail from the Lindale tract to the white cedar swamp overlook.

Blunt-leafed Milkweed single flower

It also grows in a few clumps on both the Pope Tract and the Savage

Tract along the old public road that ran from Abbott’s Pond road to the

old Blair’s Mill site. This road was used by locals using horse and buggy

and auto traffic until the early 1950’s and is now incorporated into the

5K loop trail and renamed Post Oak Trail. At seventeen my Mother

drove her three younger sisters by horse and buggy to Blair’s Pond to go

“bathing” in 1924-25. If you walk the old road you will see evidence of a

trash dump as well as masonry debris. Blunt-leaved milkweed can be

identified when not blooming by the blunt leaves which seem to clasp

the stem. Although it is less common it is worth looking for.

The final strange member of the milkweed family that I’d like to discuss is Carolina Angle-pod or Woodson (Matelea carolinensis).

Carolina Angle Pod

Only a few years ago while walking the trails of the Lindale Tract forest, I noticed a vine growing along the ground with unusual leaves that I couldn’t recognize. After searching in some reference literature I learned its identity and was amazed that it was a climbing member of the milkweed family. Going back and searching farther, there were other plants in the thicket that were climbing up shrubs and small trees. Over a period of the next several weeks, I returned many times until the vine flowered to discover that the flowers are a strange brownish-purple. How fitting is that for such a unique plant? The seed pods are slender and rough on the surface.

Carolina Angle Pod detail

So in conclusion, our local milkweeds not only provide food and nectar

for numerous insects and larvae, they are absolutely beautiful. Take a

few minutes this month to get outside to see what treasures you can

locate. Happy hunting!

******************************************************************************************************************************** Next week Steve will take you to the Milton area to visit the old mills that were once on the Broadkill River.

********************************************************************************************************************************Ainsworth Abbott's old mill will be operating for tours this Saturday. Tours begin at 1:00, 2:00 and 3:00 PM. Our huge 20 hp Fairbanks-Morse engine will also be running.

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