Much Ado About Milkweed

“A fallen blossom–returning to the bough, I thought…But no, a butterfly.”

–Arakida Moritake

***

What’s all the fuss about milkweed?  Well…what’s not to love?

There’s butterfly milkweed’s day-glo orange. Grab your sunglasses.

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Get a pop of prairie color—with a pollinator—from purple milkweed.

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Enjoy the pretty-in-pink of prairie milkweed, sometimes called Sullivant’s milkweed.

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In the fall, the milkweeds smoke silks into the autumn air, sending seeds aloft.

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When the milkweed’s seeds are spent, the canoe-like seedpods are endless vehicles for creativity and imagination.

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Other than the visual and tactile pleasure the blooms give us, our 19 native Illinois species of milkweed are a veritable Noah’s Ark for monarch butterflies. Although monarchs sip nectar from a variety of plants like the bee balm below, they lay their eggs only on milkweed.

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When the monarch butterfly larvae (caterpillars) hatch, they munch on milkweed. Without the milkweeds, there would be no monarchs.

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Scientists at Cornell University tell us to pair milkweeds with fall blooming, nectar-rich plants such as goldenrods. Why?  Goldenrod and other fall nectar plants provide food for the monarch butterfly’s epic migration to Mexico in the fall.  Evidently, goldenrod is an important life-giving flower for monarchs.

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But it all begins with milkweed. Such a simple act of hope—to plant a flower.

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After all, how often can we help save a species while, in the process, make the world more beautiful?

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): butterfly milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  purple milkweed (Asclepias purpurascens), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; prairie milkweed (Asclepias sullivantii),Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; milkweed silks, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; milkweed pod with snow, East Side prairie planting, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; monarch on bee balm (Monarda fistulosa);  monarch caterpillar, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  monarch butterfly on goldenrod (Solidago canedensis), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  common milkweed, (Asclepias syriaca) with false sunflowers (Heliopsis helianthoides), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL.

Arakida Moritake (1473-1549), whose words begins this essay, was a Japanese poet who wrote about the natural world.

3 responses to “Much Ado About Milkweed

  1. Mary Alice Mastrovito

    Greetings Cindy,

    Oh how I love Tuesdays in the Tallgrass! Thank you for your dedication and passion. I smile thinking of you out there loving on the Prairie.

    I have been wondering about adding milkweed to my home garden. And after reading todays post, I thought I would ask you for advice.

    I have a small sunny area about 3’ by 8’. I’m thinking of 3 different plants, say Milkweed, Goldenrod and one more but there are so many varieties! Our garden is not formal but it isn’t ‘wild’ or natural either. I am accustomed to cutting down most perennials in the fall but if I am understanding it correctly, I would need to leave the plants standing all winter in order to protect any eggs. Yes? When does one cut down the old dead material or would I need to leave it standing???

    My questions: 1. recommended plants for something more formal than a prairie 2. recommended timing for cleanup of dead material

    Thank you so much for any advice. I trust and value your input so much!

    Mary Alice

    >

    Liked by 1 person

    • Mary Alice, thank you for your very kind words! I’m so glad you are thinking about adding milkweed to your garden. I asked my friend at DuPage Monarch to give you an expert reply, and you’ll see it below. I have both species of milkweed she recommends (the swamp and the butterfly) and can highly recommend them. The butterflies will love you! Let me know how it goes. Thank you for reading Tuesdays in the Tallgrass!

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  2. Hi Mary Alice, I thought I’d chime in with a couple of thoughts about milkweed and gardening for monarchs. I’m involved with DuPage Monarch Project and have gardened for monarchs for the past several years.

    In a small area like you described, there are two milkweeds more suitable than common milkweed which has many good qualities but it can be a bit of a thug in the garden, taking over more space that you planned. The two species that work well in an ornamental setting are swamp milkweed and butterfly weed. Swamp does not require a swamp though it prefers moist locations. It does not spread aggressively. Everything in my yard grows tall, not sure why, but typically swamp can reach 2 – 3 feet. The flowers are pink The other ornamental one is the brilliantly orange butterfly weed Cindy featured in her blog. It prefers well drained locations, often fails to thrive in heavy clay which holds too much water.

    Monarchs will lay eggs on both and caterpillars will feed on them as well. As for fall clean up, monarchs begin heading south in late August and by late September they’re gone except for an occasional straggler. Eggs don’t winter over so females stop laying them in late summer in preparation for the migration. The females that arrive in Mexico will lay eggs again when they return to the southern US in late March. So no need to let the plants you chose for a monarch garden stand during the winter. Clean up can be done at the same time you usually put the garden to bed for the winter. For me, it’s typically in October after the asters and goldenrods finish blooming.

    I invite you to check out DuPage Monarch project on facebook, visited by the growing community of people involved with monarch conservation in DuPage. The Project’s website is at dupagemonarchs.com
    Lonnie Morris

    Liked by 1 person

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