Ames Free Library

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A Glimpse of Nature -- Common Milkweed

Two weeks ago, I shared an image of an eastern tiger swallowtail perched on a plant.  The butterfly got the spotlight.  Butterflies always get the spotlight.  Today we’re going to give some attention to the extraordinary plant:  common milkweed.  Most of the time when I read about milkweed, people describe it as a necessary evil to support monarch butterflies.  The pitch goes something like this:  “milkweed is unattractive but we must allow it to live, or even plant a few in our gardens, if we want to prevent monarchs from going extinct.”  I just don’t get it.  I love milkweed!

Here it is growing above the intermittent stream between the library’s driveway and that of Queset House:



First, I like the sweet, but not cloying, fragrance.  Then, there’s the unusual color of its flower clusters:  mauve?  Each individual flower is exquisite:



The leaves are bold and fuzzy with pale undersides.  Later, come the pods which, when young, can be eaten.  Cook for fifteen minutes total, using several batches of fresh boiling water.  Drain, add butter and salt.  Tasty.

In autumn, once the pods dry and split, they release delightful fluff that rivals dandelion parachutes.  This “floss” was utilized on a grand scale during WWII when kapok became unavailable as filling for life vests.  “A Weed Goes to War, and Michigan Provides the Ammunition” describes the operation in Petoskey, Michigan, the center of milkweed processing during the war years.  A post in Recollecting Nemasket describes the contributions of local Middleboro residents.

Pod-bearing stalks grace winter fields with their statuary (and look good in floral arrangements).  Have you ever sailed a milkweed boat?

And then, there’s all the activity that the species supports.  The collage below displays some of the many animals that utilize this plant. Clockwise, from the upper left, they include honeybee, cockroach, aphids, monarch caterpillar, earwigs, small red milkweed beetle, a wasp, and a land snail at the center.  This season, I have also seen milkweed bugs, bumblebees, swamp milkweed leaf beetles, a spider, a weevil, a flower fly, fireflies, leafhoppers, a lady beetle, sowbugs, Allegheny mound ants, a plume moth, and a hummingbird!



If you happen to have a specimen growing near your porch light as I serendipitously do, then you’ll see that the action continues day and night.  Donald R. Lewis, an extension entomologist at Iowa State University, apparently shares my enthusiasm.  He begins a brief article on “The Milkweed Insects” with the remark, “Plants can be interesting, especially if you enjoy seeing them eaten by insects,” which is not a commonly-expressed pleasure.  He goes on to call the monarch butterfly “the tip of the ecological iceberg” and cites a study that found 457 different insect species on milkweed plants -- some were feeding on foliage; others on pollen and nectar; some were just passing through.  “7 Insects Commonly Found on Milkweed” describes several of them.

When common milkweed is allowed to grow in the sunny, open places that it prefers, a beautiful and abundant habitat develops.  To my eyes, this looks very much like the fashionable landscapes that designers work so hard to create.


At the library:


Bringing Nature Home

by Douglas Tallamy

The Ecosystem of a MilkweedPatch

by Elaine Pascoe

Milkweed, Monarchs and More

by Karen Oberhauser

[Commonwealth Catalog]

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