We’ve got a runner!
Named for its milky white sap, there seems to be a milkweed for every scenario. I’m currently experimenting with a few of the unusual suspects at the nursery: Whorled Milkweed (Asclepias verticillata), a small dainty relative, and Poke Milkweed (Asclepias exaltata), a shade-tolerant species. Johnson’s Nursery carries Swamp Milkweed and Butterflyweed (Asclepias incarnata and A. tuberosa, respectively), as these are the most garden-friendly species.
One of the more common milkweeds is the Common Milkweed (go figure). Its more noteworthy aspects include the large round clusters of pinky-purple flowers butted up against dark blue-green leathery leaves. Once pollinated, the flowers turn into great, oblong, ‘nodulated’ pods that house the most ethereal silver silken threads ever produced by nature. Attached to the beautiful fan of fine filaments is a flat little brown seed, which expects a fair wind to come along and carry it to a different pasture or railroad cut than where it was conceived. This plant has broad-spectrum appeal and can amaze children and elected officials alike. This plant is more American than apple pie. My grandmother told tales of World War II-era policies where they could collect the pods in a big sack and get paid a bit for assisting the war effort. (Something like $ 0.15 per bag). The silk in the pods was used for stuffing in flotation devices.
More recently there has been concern over the decreasing population of Monarch butterflies, who travel over great distances and several generations from Mexican mountain valleys to the breadth of the United States. The larval stage is completely dependent on various milkweed species.
I like Monarch butterflies as much as the next guy. Who wouldn’t want to support them? They face habitat loss and the varied pressures of industrial agriculture. So plant folks out there are pushing the milkweeds these days. I’ve seen seed packets with 50-count seeds in them handed out as bookmarks! If you get one in fifty to grow, you’ll have more than you need for the average suburban lot. If you have a couple of acres – that’s a different tale.
Common Milkweed gets pretty tall, 3-6 feet, and can cover quite a few square feet. They seed prolifically as well, so they also may appear in neighbor’s flower beds or foundation plantings. This milkweed needs full sun to thrive, though it can survive in light shade if other conditions are optimal. They tolerate a wide range of soil conditions but don’t like wet feet (though their cousin the swamp milkweed – Asclepias incarnata – does well). It is a wide-ranging species found from the Great Plains into Maine and as far south as northern Georgia, wherever Monarchs travel on their journey.