Home of the Practically Perfect Pink Phlox and other native plants for pollinators

Wednesday, June 26, 2019

Wildflower Wednesday: Asclepias syriaca

I am super excited to share Common milkweed with you today for Wildflower Wednesday. Three years ago I planted one small plant and now I have well over a three dozen plants and most bloomed. That's both wonderfully exciting and terrifying. Now, if only a Monarch butterfly would lay eggs and cats would start consuming the leaves!
Bumbles and other bees love the nectar and pollen rich flowers
It's an interesting looking plant with gorgeous flowers that smell delicious. It typically grows 3-4' tall on stout, upright stems with thick, broad-oblong, reddish-veined, light green leaves (to 8" long), although, in ideal conditions it can grow to be 6 foot tall.
they bloom over a long bloom period from late spring well into summer.
The flowers or umbels are lightly drooping clusters of fragrant, pinkish -purple flowers that appear mostly in the upper leaf axils. The flowers are nectar and pollen rich and attract a variety of critters. Stems and leaves exude a milky sap when cut or bruised....thus the name milkweed.

The seed pods develop after fertilization into warty seed pods (2-4" long) which split open when ripe. Once the floss/coma has plumped up the soft and beautiful silky-tailed seeds are ready to parachute away on the wind.

Botanists call this wind dispersal, but, for me it's pure magic. It's a trip to my childhood; where the dried pods were small boats and the feathery comas were soft fluffy pillows for fairies to rest as they floated in the puddles.

The seeds are cool (and fun to try to photograph) as they blow about, pausing for a brief moment before the wind catches them and they are gone. Traveling on the wind a few feet or a few miles, they will drop from the sky onto a spot of soil and wait the winter out. Technically that waiting period is called vernalization. Milkweed seeds need cold weather in order to germinate. Come spring, the seed will grow and any of the silk/coma that's left in the garden will be gathered by hummingbirds and warblers for their nests.

Total magic or nature at its clever best. You decide.
balls of pink fragrant blooms

It's a colonizer and when you plant one you can be guaranteed that there will be dozens before you know it. Trust me on this and plant it were you don't mind it taking off or be prepared to dig them up when young (taprooted so transplant when young) to share with others. Yes, it's aggressive, but, planting milkweed is important to Monarch butterfly. Besides, you do need this fragrance in your garden.

The preference is full sun, rich loamy soil, and mesic conditions, but this robust plant can tolerate  many different growing situations...even some shade. It can be found in a variety of habitats including croplands, pastures, roadsides, ditches and old fields. It's native from southern Canada and the eastern USA west to the great plains.
Nature's mega food market for insects

 "Common milkweed is Nature's mega food market for insects. Over 450 insects are known to feed on some portion of the plant. Numerous insects are attracted to the nectar-laden flowers and it is not at all uncommon to see flies, beetles, ants, bees, wasps, and butterflies on the flowers at the same time. Occasionally hummingbirds will try, unsuccessfully, to extract nectar. Its sap, leaves and flowers also provide food. In the northeast and midwest, it is among the most important food plants for monarch caterpillars (Danaus plexippus). Other common feeders are the colorful (red with black dots) red milkweed beetle (Tetraopes tetraophthalmus), the milkweed tussock caterpillar (Euchaetes egle) and the large (Oncopeltus fasciatus) and the small (Lygaeus kalmia) red and black milkweed bugs. The latter two are particularly destructive as both the adults and nymphs are seed predators. They can destroy 80 to 90 percent of a colony's seed crop. The red (or orange-red) and black coloration of most of these insects is known as aposematic coloration; that is, the colors advertise the fact that the organism is not good to eat." Source

Native Americans used this species as a source of fibers and during the Second World War children in the northern states were encouraged to collect the seed pods that were processed for the coma, or floss, which was used for floatation in life vests. Today the coma is harvested for use in pillows and comforters.

 Asclepia syriaca is one of my favorite rough and tumble native wildflowers. Rough and tumble wildflowers are beautiful and charming plants that are usually found growing in meadows, prairies and roadside ditches. The beautiful thing about them is that they haven't had their best characteristics bred out of them. There are no cultivars or hybrids~That means they have not been crossed or genetically altered by human hand to be shorter, more floriferous, double flowered, disease resistant, sterile or what ever else is the going fad. I am pretty sure you can't improve on what nature has already done~creating plants that dance beautifully and gracefully with their pollinator and wildlife partners.

That definition fits common milkweed perfectly. It has a beautiful relationship dance with pollinators and an especially important one with Monarch butterflies. Monarchs cannot survive without milkweed; their caterpillars only eat milkweed plants (Asclepias spp.), and Monarch butterflies need milkweed to lay their eggs.

Planting milkweed is one of the easiest ways that each of us can make a difference for them. There are several dozen species of this wildflower native to North America, so no matter where you live, there is at least one milkweed species naturally found in your area. Planting local milkweed species is always best and common milkweed is native where I live.

In case you wondered if you're gardening on the Monarch Migration Trail the following maps will help. Btw, Middle Tennessee, where I garden, is not on the migration trail, but, I planted common milkweed for all the visiting pollinators.

Happy Wildflower Wednesday my friends.
Moving north

Heading south

The particulars:

Asclepias syriaca
Common Name: common milkweed
Family: Apocynaceae
Type: Herbaceous perennial
Native Range: Eastern North America
Zone: 3 to 9
Height: 2.00 to 3.00 feet Spread: 0.75 to 1.00 feet
Bloom Time: June to August
Bloom Description: Pink, mauve, white
Sun: Full sun/light shade
Water: Dry to medium
Maintenance: Low
Suggested Use: Naturalize, meadow, field
Flower: Showy, Fragrant
Wildlife value: High. Attracts: Butterflies, bees, flies, ants, beetles...
Fruit: Showy
Comments: Can spread somewhat rapidly by rhizomes. Often forms extensive colonies in the wild. Tolerate: Deer, Drought, Erosion, Dry Soil, Shallow-Rocky Soil

Welcome to Clay and Limestone's Wildflower Wednesday celebration. WW is about sharing and celebrating wildflowers from all over this great big, beautiful world. Join us on the fourth Wednesday of each month. Remember, it doesn't matter if they are in bloom or not; and, it doesn't matter if we all share the same plants. It's all about celebrating wildflowers. Please leave a comment when you add your url to Mr Linky.

 Gail Eichelberger is a gardener and therapist in Middle Tennessee. She loves wildflowers and native plants and thoroughly enjoys writing about the ones she grows at Clay and Limestone. She reminds all that the words and images are the property of the author and cannot be used without written permission.


  1. Thank you for hosting another informative wildflower Wednesday! I've seen a few monarchs around here just in the past couple days. We don't have any milkweed on our property yet but I may remedy that in the near future! :)

  2. Hi Gail! I posted for WW this month. All about Amsonia!

  3. I have common milkweed in my yard and not always where I'd like it to be. We've had very few monarchs the last few years and I've not seen any caterpillars on my plants, although the neighbor across the street has. It's good to know so many other insects benefit from them, so I'll leave them be (although I've been thinning out some of those in my front garden).

  4. I'm sold! I'll have to get some seeds and find a spot for these next spring. Love your blog, Gail.

  5. Great photos!
    Earlier this Spring I bought a Dwarf Joe Pye Weed. My husband asked what it was, and when I told him, he said 'You're buying a weed?'
    Have a wonderful weekend!

  6. I've got some in my garden now, waiting for the first blooms. I also have the very similar A. sullivantii. Worth planting for the fragrance alone.

  7. I'm in Northern Illinois, does milkweed grow wild in the midwest?

    1. Yes, but there are fewer and fewer places in the wild. Contact your Illinois Wildflower Society to learn more.

  8. I am still looking for a milkweed for our African Monarchs.


"Insects are the little things that run the world." Dr. E O Wilson