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Mysterious Milkweed

Life of a milkweed plant.

Blooms smell so sweet.

There is a good chance that you have seen milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) growing somewhere near you. Milkweed grows from a single stem with leaves that are elliptical and opposite. Bloom colors can be purple, rose, or green, and the pods develop at the crux of a leaf. There are over 100 species in the Americas. They can live in swamps, fields, and on forest edges. Milkweeds are important to many insects, not just monarch butterfly caterpillars, as a nectar and food source.

Last year I read a book by Craig Holdrege called Thinking Like a Plant. His section on milkweed was fascinating. He spent months observing milkweed to see how it developed and who came to visit this plant. I have encouraged milkweed to grow in various parts of my garden so that there is a food source for insects. I love to watch milkweed grow. Milkweed is beautiful and the flowers give off a delicate, floral scent. Holdrege’s journey with milkweed encouraged me to have a journey of my own. In 2018 I choose a single plant near my mailbox to observe over time. Sometimes, changes seemed to happen quickly while others seemed to take a great deal of time. For a human this can be disconcerting, but for a plant, it is all in good time. The pictures I have posted with this article are ones I took during my time with this plant.

Seed pods begin to form.

While I knew that Monarch caterpillars rely on milkweed, I didn’t know that at least ten species of insects feed solely on milkweed, consuming the leaves, rhizomes, shoots, flowers and seeds. Bees, beetles, ants, and nocturnal moths are some of the visitors that feed on milkweed. Some of them, like the monarch caterpillar, feed on the natural latex (that white, sticky sap) that comes from the stem. They extract cardiac glycosides from the latex. In the case of the monarch caterpillar, these glycosides get stored in their tissues and remain there even when the conversion to butterfly occurs. These glycosides make both the caterpillar and the butterfly taste quite nasty to predators. You could say that the plant helps out those who feed upon it. The nectar-feeding insects, such as bees, find a good food source here as the flowers’ nectar is 3% sucrose.

Humans can eat milkweed too, if you are careful. Dogbane (Apocynum cannabinum) is NOT edible but looks similar to milkweed. When both dogbane and milkweed are growing, they can look alike except that milkweed has very fine velvety hairs on its stem, while dogbane is bare. Milkweed grows one stem. Dogbane grows a single stem and then new branches form at the apex of other branches. Make sure you have an excellent identification book before you collect any wild food. As often happens for me, a friend taught me how to identify dogbane, and then one grew in my yard. Lesson emphasized. Once you know you have milkweed, collect a few flower heads (save some for the insects and plant seed development). Boil water in two different pots. Put the flowers in one and boil for 3-4 minutes. Take the flowers out and put in the other pot. Boil for 3-4 minutes. The blooms are now ready to eat sautéed, placed on a salad, or put in a casserole. Pods that are about 1.5 inches long (before seeds fully develop), can also be eaten. Prepare and serve the same way as the blooms. The reason for the multiple boiling is to neutralize the cardio glycosides. Not good eats for humans. I have eaten the pods and found them to have a nice texture but not a lot of flavor. Unsurprisingly, butter helped. I wanted to try them to see what this more unusual wild food would be like.

Maturing Milkweed

Pods open to release seeds

Milkweed has an amazing story of pollination, reproduction, and beauty. Its seeds burst forth from the hardened pods to fly on the wind. The insects that visit are colorful and varied. Take some time to visit a milkweed plant near you. I think you will be pleasantly surprised.


Thinking Like a Plant, Craig Holdrege, Lindisfarne Books, 2013.

Peterson Field Guides Edible Wild Plants of Eastern/Central North America, Lee Allen Peterson, Houghton Mifflin Company, 1977.

Northeast Foraging, Leda Meredith, Timber Press, Inc., 2014.

The World of Plant Life, Clarence Jo Hylander, The MacMillan Company, 1956.

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