Don’t Weed the Milkweed!

If a gardening catalog offered a plant that sported unique flowers, attracted butterflies, fed and protected the beloved monarch butterfly, provided nesting material for goldfinches and orioles, was easy to grow, and was native to our state, wouldn’t we be eager to plant some in our gardens?

So, what is this magical plant? Milkweed! There are over 70 species of milkweed native to the United States. In Massachusetts, species you may see include: common milkweed, swamp milkweed, butterflyweed, whorled milkweed, and poke milkweed. Each looks different and each blooms at different times depending on the species and location.

Common milkweed is probably our most recognizable milkweed. Found in fields, meadows, disturbed areas, and roadsides, its large, thick leaves exude a milky substance when broken; its pink blossoms attract a frenzy of insect activity in early summer; and its distinctive seed pods release a hundred or more seeds flying on silky parachutes in late summer and early fall.

But don’t let the “weed” part fool you. This plant is a treasure not to be plucked. Here are a few reasons why:

  • Milkweed provides plentiful nectar to honey bees, bumble bees, wasps, butterflies, moths, and other native pollinators. Milkweed depends on insects for pollination and in return the insects receive easy nectar from milkweed’s many small flowers growing in large clusters.
  • Monarch butterflies depend on milkweed for their survival. Monarch caterpillars only feed on milkweed and the toxins in the plant make the caterpillar and adult unpalatable and poisonous to vertebrate predators. The monarch’s bright orange color acts like a warning sign to predators: Eat me and you’ll get sick!
  • Milkweed provides habitat for tiny aphids “herded” for their honeydew by ants; milkweed bugs who feed exclusively on milkweed seeds; crab spiders who assume the color of the milkweed flower and jump out at unsuspecting butterflies; and many more bizarre and wonderful creatures.
  • Milkweed has an interesting history. In the genus Asclepias, milkweed is named after the Greek god of medicine (Asklepios) and the plant has been used medicinally for ailments ranging from asthma to tapeworm. (Not recommended!) Early settlers and pioneers used milkweed’s seed silk as stuffing for pillows and mattresses and ate every part of the plant after boiling in several changes of water to dispel the bitter toxins. (Again, not recommended!)

So, please, don’t weed the milkweed! Instead plant it, grow it, nurture it, and acquaint yourself with a patch near you.

To learn more about milkweed, visit a Mass Audubon wildlife sanctuary near you or come to the Annual Barbara J. Walker Butterfly Festival at Broad Meadow Brook in August to purchase milkweed, plant milkweed seeds, and learn more about butterfly gardening.

Photo of a monarch on common milkweed via U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

15 thoughts on “Don’t Weed the Milkweed!

  1. Russ Cohen

    The seeds of the Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) are out now (i.e., most of the pods have split open and are releasing their “parachute-equipped” seeds. This year I’ve been making an effort to gather some of those seeds and then release them in a different location that is bereft of milkweed.

    BTW – milkweed is edible by people (and delicious, if properly picked and prepared), and it is possible to harvest edible parts of the plant without interfering with monarchs or other beneficial insects reliant on the species.

    Reply
  2. Dawn

    Here’s another website for info on milkweed. http://www.wildflower.org/plants/result.php?id_plant=assy It also mentions it’s medicinal value and how to prepare it in a safe way. Some gardeners don’t want this “weed” in their gardens because it can be a bit invasive and attracts aphids to the garden(but ladybugs eat aphids, and we like ladybugs!). If you do not want it to multiply quickly, just cut off the spent flowers so the seeds don’t disperse. But wait until the flower fades because their fragrance is lovely!

    Reply
  3. Donna

    Thanks for this post. I encourage the milkweed in my garden for the butterflies. But you forgot to mention a point that may interest gardeners – Milkweed flowers have a wonderful sweet fragrance. I don’t know if all varieties are fragrant, but the ones in my garden are lovely.

    Reply
    1. Kristin

      Nice addition – thanks. And milkweed in bloom is a real hit with my butterflies — they will leave my butterfly bush for milkweed nectar.

      Reply
  4. Michelle Cusolito

    Oh, I love this post! I’l going to go back and edit the post I just put on my blog to include a link here. My post is about this very issue… leaving milkweed in your garden… and now we have monarchs!
    http://tinyurl.com/d3ggcyk

    Reply
    1. Kristin

      Thank you for linking to your lovely blog — mucking about is one of my favorite things. Congratulations on your butterfly-friendly yard and on finally having monarchs. Enjoy!

      Reply
  5. Alison Colby-Campbell

    Great article – I never get enough fascinating facts on the natural world. Can’t imagine how many milk weed plants would need to be harvested to get enough stuffing for a pillow! Hope to find some growing nearby.

    Reply
    1. Kristin

      Good question! It must have been a lot of work.
      Hope you find a milkweed patch nearby. If it’s helpful, most Mass Audubon sanctuaries have milkweed and naturalists who can point you to it.

      Reply
  6. Daniel E. Levenson

    What a great post – I spend a fair amount of time birding and have only recently become interested in learning more about butterflies. Do you happen to know if there are any nurseries or garden stores in the Boston area which sell Milkweed plants ?

    Reply
    1. Kristin

      It can be surprisingly difficult to find milkweed for sale at garden nurseries. Butterflyweed is occasionally stocked by local garden nurseries, but common milkweed and swamp milkweed can be impossible to find. I transplanted all the milkweed I have in my yard from friends’ yards and gardens. However, here is the best link I know to Massachusetts companies/nonprofits that are likely to sell different varieties of milkweed:
      http://www.grownativemass.org/resources/nurseries
      Perhaps readers have additional nursery suggestions?

      Reply
  7. Deborah Canejo

    I have alot of milkweed growing in my backyard in Arlington. My mother is not pleased but now, thanks to your article, I have proof of the milkweeds’ value!

    Reply
    1. walter whalen

      Where in Arlington? I live on George St., Arlington, and am trying to find some wild growing milkweed to plant in our backyard.

      Reply

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