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June Flora Spotlight:
Common Milkweed

Common Milk-Weed 
(Asclepias syriaca)

Common Milk-Weed (Asclepias syriaca) is the most abundant and the best known of the Milkweeds. It grows everywhere along roadsides, in fields and on the border of woods. It is often considered a weed due to its economic impact on crops and toxicity to livestock, but monarch caterpillars consider it otherwise. Monarchs feed exclusively on milkweed. When the monarch larvae ingest milkweed, they also ingest the plants' toxins, called cardiac glycosides. They sequester these compounds in their wings and exoskeletons, making the larvae and adults toxic to many potential predators. Vertebrate predators usually avoid monarchs because they learn that the larvae and adults taste bad and/or make them vomit. The caterpillars feast on the leaves, stocking up for the day when they will become butterflies and migrate to Mexico for the winter.

Milkweeds belong to the family Asclepiadaceae, derived from Asklepios, the Greek god of medicine and healing. Though most members of the genus Asclepias are tropical, there are approximately 110 species native to North America. This perennial plant can reach up to six feet tall. It loves well-drained sandy/loamy soils and full sun to partial shade.

The round clusters of flowers are very fragrant and secrete an abundance of nectar. They are visited by many varieties of bees and butterflies; they bloom from June to August. 

In the fall, the lilac-colored flowers have been replaced by large, rough-coated seed-pods that are completely filled with the silkiest of flossy substance attached to the numerous black seeds. When the pod bursts it liberates the seeds that fall to the ground and become new plants in the spring. Milkweed works great with several specimens planted together in a butterfly garden. A must-have for your garden. Besides hosting the monarch caterpillar, a good reason to plant milkweed is it is deer resistant!

An interesting milkweed fact is that the fluffy part of the seed pod was collected during WWII and used as floatation material in life jackets.

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