Milkweed

 The easily-recognizable monarch butterfly is pictured resting on milkweed. Monarch butterflies feed on milkweed flowers and often hover over a patch of plants looking for nectar, and occasionally, a suitable place to lay eggs. (Photo by Scot Stewart)

The easily-recognizable monarch butterfly is pictured resting on milkweed. Monarch butterflies feed on milkweed flowers and often hover over a patch of plants looking for nectar, and occasionally, a suitable place to lay eggs. (Photo by

A weed is a plant whose virtues have not yet been discovered.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson

Walking through a field of tall grass and “weeds” may lead to a surprising fragrance wafting around not just noses, but entire bodies. Heavy, sweet and overpowering, its source may not be readily apparent. With a little curiosity and inspection though, the source of the wonderful, cloying aroma may be revealed as groups of huge pink flowers on common milkweed plants. Often thought to be just a weed, it is a sturdy, hardy native plant capable of living in some of the most challenging conditions—poor soil, dry roadsides, old industrial sites and worse.  Despite its description as a common weed often found along roadsides, vacant lots and other “waste areas,” it is a remarkable plant.

Many American children first find out about milkweed as they learn about the life cycle of monarch butterflies.  Monarch larvae, or caterpillars, feed only on different species of milkweed.  Eggs are laid directly on the leaves of the plants and the larvae spend their entire time feeding on the leaves. With yellow, black and white stripes, they advertise their poisonous condition due to the ingestion of toxic chemicals contained in the milkweed leaves.

Large milkweed bugs, or Oncopeltus fasciatus, are pictured. (Photo by Scot Stewart)

Large milkweed bugs, or Oncopeltus fasciatus, are pictured. (Photo by Scot Stewart)

The drop in monarch numbers has been linked to genetically modified organisms (GMOs) grown in agricultural areas. Crops such as corn, potatoes, soy beans and others are engineered to be resistant to herbicides such as Roundup. The herbicides can then be sprayed on fields, killing weeds and plants like milkweed but not the cash crop. The result is a more than 80 percent decrease in the amount of milkweed available for monarch larvae in the Midwest, according to Karen Oberhauser, a conservation biologist at the University of Minnesota. More than 80 percent of all corn and soybean fields in the United States currently use Roundup, according to Oberhauser.

The seeds look like parachutes headed into the autumn wind, carrying seeds away from the parent plants for dispersal.  The fibers carrying those seeds have been found to have a number of valuable uses.  During World War II they were collected to fill personal flotation devices, known as life jackets then, for servicemen. Pioneers used the fibers to fill bedding, and in modern day they have been used to fill hypoallergenic pillows. They have an insulating factor higher than goose down when used in jackets. Additionally, Native Americans used the sturdy fibers of the stems to make rope.

The range of common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) extends from the southern part of eastern Canada to the southwestern edge of the Great Plains. The plants provide a number of foods historically sought by Native Americans, and are still used today. A great variety of interesting and diverse discussions on the edibility of various parts of the plant are available. An article by Green Deane, online at www.eattheweeds.com, and a second by Samuel Thayer, at foragersharvest.com, offer fairly thorough discussions on this.

A male ruby-throated hummingbird, or Archilochus colubris, takes a drink from a common milkweed flower. (Photo by Scot Stewart)

A male ruby-throated hummingbird, or Archilochus colubris, takes a drink from a common milkweed flower. (Photo by Scot Stewart)

Milkweed plants contain some mildly toxic chemicals, including cardiac glucosides which affect the contracting action of the heart and disrupt its function. Other chemicals of concern include small amounts of alkaloids and resinoids. The toxins are bitter tasting and water soluble, so boiling until the bitter taste is gone, changing the water every two minutes or so, seems to be the bottom line for cooking milkweed parts to eat.

The common milkweed seems to provide the most palatable possibilities of the different milkweed species, but may be cross-pollenated by other species in some areas, making some less palatable.

Four different parts of milkweed plants are eaten. Young shoots, usually less than 6 or 8 inches tall, can be eaten in spring, but some eat the young tops of older plants up to 15 inches tall. Shoots should be hairy and produce a milky sap when picked to avoid confusion with dogbane and butterfly milkweed, both of which are poisonous. The taste of shoots is described as being similar to beans and asparagus, but distinctly different from both. Flower buds and very young seed pods may taste like okra, and, believe it or not, the very young silk on the seeds can also be eaten; they’re described as looking and tasting somewhat like melted cheese.

A swamp milkweed, or Asclepias incarnata, is pictured. When swamp milkweed blooms, its flowers are a stunning combination of pink and white.  (Photo by Scot Stewart)

A swamp milkweed, or Asclepias incarnata, is pictured. When swamp milkweed blooms, its flowers are a stunning combination of pink and white. (Photo by Scot Stewart)

Milkweed has also had medicinal uses, including treatment of digestive, urinary, respiratory, skin (wart removal) troubles, and treatment of gall and kidney stones. Native Americans used cooked leaves for birth control. European settlers extended the uses even further. A few still use milkweed for warts and treatment of kidney and gall stones.

The sap of common milkweed resembles that of the rubber tree—a white, viscous liquid that contains between 1 and 2 percent latex. It has a tacky property.  During World War II when rubber supplies were reduced, scientists in both the United States and Germany experimented with milkweed plants to determine if they could provide a substitute resource without apparent success.

A Canadian company in Quebec, Encore3, is currently developing absorbent socks made of the milkweed fibers attached to seeds. According to a short video on their website www.encore3.com, the fibers are extremely hydrophobic, meaning they repel water, and can absorb up to 40 times their weight in oil. Other scientific studies have shown an even better absorption rate.

The caterpillar does all the work but the butterfly gets all the publicity. 

—  George Carlin

Toxic chemicals in milkweed plants protect the plant from most animals by discouraging them from nibbling on leaves, flowers and seed pods.  There are a few insects able to eat them, and are frequently identified as such by their names—milkweed beetle, large and small milkweed bug, and of course monarch larvae (caterpillars). Nearly all are orange, reddish, or have yellow, black and white stripes, providing warning coloration of their chemistry to other animals. Not only are they able to feed on milkweed tissue, but they accumulate the toxins in their own bodies and become somewhat poisonous themselves.  Birds and other animals usually get sick after eating a monarch butterfly, regurgitate it and avoid them in the future. Other insects may mimic the marking of these insects to avoid predation too.  Viceroy butterflies look very similar but their larvae feed on willow and are safe to eat by birds. The word viceroy means a stand in for royalty—the monarch.

Monarch butterflies feed on milkweed flowers and often hover over a patch of plants looking for nectar, and occasionally a suitable place to lay eggs. Usually, the eggs are laid well before plants flower. Milkweed patches have become critical for the survival of monarchs and protecting them will be necessary to ensure the survival of this insect icon.

Monarch butterflies aren’t the only nectar feeders attracted to milkweed flowers. The large clusters of fragrant flowers are filled with enough nectar to occasionally attract large numbers of bees, wasps, moths and hummingbirds. Two years ago such a patch was found in north Marquette near the Dead River. In 2014 it was estimated at least 30 hummingbirds, mostly females and young, were drawn to the 75-foot-long stretch of flowers for more than a week. Only one adult and one juvenile male were seen there.

The stage they created for their aerial maneuvers was spellbinding.Individuals fed separately but it seemed some birds laid claim to specific areas in the patch—or at least some plants—darting in to chase other birds feeding or heading for those spots. Frequently a pair would rise straight up in the air facing each other before one would lunge at the other, chasing it into nearby trees. Hummingbirds have incredible memories for recalling the flowers they have visited, and it was evident individual flower clusters did not host more than one visit over a given period of several hours. Research has shown individual flowers refill every four hours or so if conditions allow.

In 2015 there seemed to be a slightly smaller group of birds present, and again males were scarce.  The area was shared by a family of song sparrows and some Nashville warblers that were feeding on insects in the plants, though, not nectar.

The true wonder of this place was the chance to see many hummingbirds in one place and at such a close proximity. Quiet, still observers are able to stand (or sit) at the edge of the milk patch, which borders a small parking lot, and watch as hummingbirds move to feed on flowers within inches of them, all the while being bathed in a cloud of sweet perfume from the plants. Because many of the birds are young, they have very little fear of people, especially people who don’t move. Early morning and evening light offer an additional chance to observe the iridescence of the hummingbirds’ tiny feathers in the rosy or golden light. Against the gentle pink flowers they appear as animated jewelry.

Birders have added one extra bit to this patch—small tree branches erected in the middle of the milkweeds, just higher than the plants, as perches for proprietary individuals to roost between feeding sessions. There they can watch over and protect “their” plants. It has allowed observers to enjoy perched birds preen and rest at very close range.

There is a second milkweed species found in the Upper Peninsula in a different habitat—the swamp milkweed. It is found in wetter habitats like streams, ponds and lake edges and produces smaller, darker flower clusters.  It also attracts nectar feeders and some monarchs interested in sites to lay eggs, but the leaves are much narrower and offer less food for hungry caterpillars.

In an era when simplicity is admired, when weeds and extraneous “things” get stripped away, milkweed plants have become a prized piece of our natural history and landscape, a prized part indeed.

— Scot Stewart

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