Magical Milkweeds: The plants that check all the boxes!

Ian Stewart

“Delaware Nature Society’s mission is to connect people with the natural world to improve our environment through education, conservation, and advocacy.”

We have been following this mission statement since our founding in 1964 and every year we connect over a thousand people with nature through our adult, family and youth programs, summer camps, bird walks, ecotours, special events, and social media. We also help people attract more wildlife to their yard through our popular native plant sales (click here for details of the upcoming fall sale). Native plants help to improve our environment by restoring natural food webs, but one group neatly fulfils all three of the avenues listed in our mission statement: the milkweeds! The milkweeds are a family of plants (genus Asclepias) containing several species native to our area that provide a perfect opportunity to connect with nature.

Education

Milkweeds are a nice gateway for those who would like to learn more about plants and gardening, as several of the strikingly colorful species like butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa) and swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) are readily available at our spring plant sale and not too difficult to grow in a sunny spot. The budding gardener then learns about their life cycle by seeing them grow into flowering adult plants which eventually produce seed for the next generation. Common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) is easy to grow from seed provided it is planted in a sunny location, and since the seed is so large even small children can poke a few into the soil then follow their progress as the shoots emerge then develop into a large, bright green adult plant. Common milkweed can spread quite rapidly however, so butterfly weed and swamp milkweed may be better options for a tightly managed landscape.

Milkweeds also have tremendous educational value because they are the host plants for one of our most charismatic insects, the monarch butterfly. The adult is a large, spectacular orange and black butterfly that is easy to spot, even for children, and the yellow and black striped larva is arguably the most recognizable of all North American caterpillars. Monarchs are a perfect model organism for teaching adults and children about the life cycles of insects because each stage can be observed quite easily. The adults usually copulate on a prominent flower (and sometimes in flight!), the eggs are tiny but distinctive, the caterpillars are colorful and don’t move very quickly, and the pupae are usually suspended below everyday structures like fences and windowsills.  As an added benefit, the caterpillars are easy to rear in captivity provided you have a ready supply of fresh milkweed leaves, so that you can witness the magic moment when the fully formed adult butterfly emerges from its chrysalis!

Milkweeds and monarchs also illustrate how certain insects gain protection from their host plants. Milkweeds are so-named because they have a distinctive white latex sap which contains toxic cardiac glycosides that caterpillars incorporate into their tissues as they feed, which makes them distasteful to predators like birds. Be mindful that the milky sap can cause some skin irritation. Monarchs are also unusual butterflies in that they migrate long distances, with successive generations flying to and from the wintering grounds in Mexico. Citizen scientists track their migration by carefully capturing them using a soft net and attaching a small coded sticker tag to their wing which provides vital information on their migratory route or wintering location if they are later recovered. If you want to try some tagging, we are having a Monarch Migration Celebration at the DuPont Environmental Education Center in Wilmington on September 25th (click here for details)!

Conservation

Growing milkweeds is an instant conservation gain since they are essential for the reproduction of the declining monarch butterfly. However, many other insects feed upon milkweeds as adults or larva, with almost 450 insect species being recorded from common milkweed! Three very colorful native species it almost invariably attracts are the milkweed tussock moth, the large milkweed bug, and the red milkweed beetle. All the milkweeds are butterfly and bee magnets so planting even one species would help boost the number of these attractive pollinator insects, many of which are in decline. Supporting these pollinators is one of the main reasons we manage our land by restoring it with many other native plants besides milkweeds, which you can read about here. This page includes external links to free milkweed seed giveaways for teachers and non-profits.

Advocacy

Land, habitat, and wildlife protection is one of our four policy priority areas. The Delaware Nature Society works to insure adequate attention and funding for the preservation and management of wildlife habitat throughout the state. Supporting funding for Open Space and Farmland Preservation is one of the ways we can insure native plants like the milkweeds can grow and flourish because these are exactly the kind of habitats in which they thrive. However, people don’t need to visit the countryside to see milkweeds and monarchs as several species grow well in small plots in city gardens and downtown parks and schools, which makes these plants a great way to bring nature closer to home.

Milkweeds provide a year-round appreciation of the simple beauty of the natural world, especially for photographers or artists. Common milkweed emerges early, and its shoots provide a welcome sign of spring after a cold and dark winter. Milkweeds continue to attract insects all summer long, after which the seed pods start turning brown before splitting opening to reveal hundreds of mahogany seeds suspended from glistening silvery threads. Even after the seeds have dispersed the rows of empty pods can be a striking sight on a snowy day.

In gardening, as in life, you only reap what you sow, and planting milkweeds in your yard or neighborhood will give you many hours of enjoyment!

3 thoughts on “Magical Milkweeds: The plants that check all the boxes!”

  1. Thanks, Ian, for an interesting article. We’ve been enjoying watching Monarchs nearly all summer. They have lots of Milkweed to keep them happy.

  2. Ronica Ridley-Martin

    Excellent overview of milkweeds! We will definitely add this plant to our burgeoning wildlife landscape – Thank you!

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