Plant milkweed for beautiful flowers and butterflies

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A plant on which the lovely, but threatened, orange-and-black monarch butterfly depends utterly for survival makes a stunning addition to a garden. And the plant is native to our region, a local. It’s the multi-faceted milkweed.

Botanists identify at least 75 species of milkweed as indigenous to North America, more than half of all the milkweeds that exist worldwide. Three — swamp milkweed, butterfly milkweed and common milkweed – grow wild in the Chesapeake Bay watershed, which includes Maryland.

When you think of milkweed, what probably springs to mind are images of swamp milkweed (asclepias incarnata) and common milkweed (asclepias syriaca). Both types are sturdy herbaceous plants, 3-1/2 to 6-1/2 feet tall, with pinkish and blue-purple flowers, respectively. Common milkweed has fragrant blossom.

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One  sees these plants growing in fields and ditches around Dorchester County, although not in such great numbers as they once did. Their signature characteristics are a sticky white sap and hammock-shaped seed pods full of silky white fluff attached to seeds. Once the pods open, breezes catch the little parachutes and they waft across the landscape with their precious cargo of milkweeds-to-be.

A third type, butterfly milkweed or butterflyweed (asclepias tuberosa), looks different but plays the same vital role hosting monarchs and feeding many other sorts of butterflies. Voted by scientists in 1940 as the fourth showiest wildflower in the United States, it produces bright orange blossom resembling sedum and grows no more than three feet tall. In contrast to the other two milkweeds, its sap is not white and sticky and it has many more leaves.

Joanne Healey, Nursery Manager and Horticulturalist at Adkins Arboretum, said butterflyweed is so popular she has trouble keeping up with demand.  “I can say hands-down that butterflyweed is our number one seller, it’s a nice, compact plant that doesn’t take over the garden,” she told The Banner.

“Butterflyweed likes it hotter and drier. Swamp milkweed likes it wetter.” Ms. Healey said she sells lots of swamp milkweed for rain gardens and ditches. Another point in favor of both types: They’re not aggressive.

Common milkweed is a different story. “It forms colonies and will take over the garden.” However, this type of milkweed is “Okay for native meadow”styles of garden or “wild meadows,” she said, adding that wild gardens are a “huge trend” these days. Adkins doesn’t sell common milkweed because “it’s not pretty in the garden.” But as a trying-to-be-objective garden writer, I feel I should remind readers of the old saying: “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.”

To a butterfly, any milkweed is beautiful . These plants’ flowers offer nectar to feed the adults. But in the case of monarchs, milkweeds also provide a place to lay their eggs in spring (the underside of milkweed leaves) and food for their young (the caterpillars eat newly-emerged young leaves). For those reasons, milkweed is the monarchs’ host plant.

Planting milkweed may help save monarchs from becoming dinosaurs

Monarch numbers have plunged by more than 90% in the past 20 years, according to scientists. Agriculture and development have wiped out many wild places and destroyed 90% of the U.S. “native grassland ecosystems on which monarchs depend,” the National Wildlife Federation (NWF) website says.

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Each fall, monarchs living in eastern U.S. regions migrate south to Mexico. (They are the only butterflies to migrate). But there, their winter habitat has taken a beating, too, victim of logging in forests and development.

Meanwhile milkweed, whose leaves are the sole food for monarch caterpillars, has fallen prey to farmers and homeowners who consider it a weed.  Add to the mix the misuse of pesticides and herbicides, which kill gorgeous butterflies along with undesirable insects, and the result could be extinction unless people take steps to rebuild the butterflies’ environment. For monarchs, this means planting milkweed.

The NWF, by the way, encourages gardeners to plant common milkweed, as well as other types. Milkweeds attract not only monarchs. They’re also the host plant for queens and milkweed tiger moths. In addition, they feed skippers, swallowtails, blues, fritallaries and hair streaks (all butterflies). In fact, there’s a “milkwood family” of butterflies.
If you love butterflies and want to prevent their disappearing forever, the single most helpful thing you can do, probably, is to plant milkweed. The second thing is to stop using pesticides and/or herbicides.

A bed of butterflyweed, which blooms in late summer, will enhance your yard as well as providing food for migrant monarchs (as well as other butterflies) and breeding sites for beautiful, delicate monarchs the following spring.

Mikweed, a perennial, is not fussy about soil. Swamp  milkweed, for instance, tolerates partial shade and drought, but also flooding with fresh water. Yet, it sometimes grows at the edge of salt marshes, above the mean high water line to the spring tide elevation line.

The interesting looking seed pods, which appear August through November, appeal particularly to kids. Native Americans and colonists once used the down inside to stuff beds and pillows. They used that and other parts of the plant to make paper, cloth, thread, string and twine.

Before the advent of modern medicine, milkweed also had myriad medicinal uses, including to treat  smallpox, flu, dysentery, lung ailments and skin diseases. Until 1905, the U.S. Pharmacopoeia, an official list of medicines, listed the plant as an ingredient in no less than six medications.  In fact, the milkweed’s family name, Asclepias, comes from the ancient Roman god of healing and medicine, Aesculapius.

Rather than destroying milkweed, we should plant it and pray for the survival of butterflies, and not only the monarchs.

In the meantime, happy gardening!

Editor’s note: Laetitia Sands is a master gardener in Dorchester County.

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