Milkweed: Common or Special?
Spring arrives and so do the beautiful full-color catalogues dripping with vivid pictures and glowing descriptions of flowers and plants. Described as unusual and scene stealers, they fairly dance across the pages into your cart. Exotic and rare are words used to catch your eye and convince you that these are the plants you should want. Don’t you want your garden to stand out? Make your yard a show place? Be the envy of all that pass by? After reading the fine print you may find out that they have very specific needs, full shade or bright sun, the soil must be very wet or very dry. As you read further you find they won’t even survive in your growing temperature zone. That’s the geographical area you live in which only some plants will tolerate. Some may end up only being a house plant in Growing Zone 5B in Jefferson County. For others it may actually be a little too warm.
But we do want something special! So many of the plants and trees we see on a daily basis in Jefferson County are so familiar that they seem insignificant. Every time you turn around there is that plant again. How special can that be? It turns out that Pennsylvania Natives are remarkably special. I will give you one very good example, Common Milkweed. Yes that’s its real name. Common Milkweed. Asclepius syriaca is its Botanical name. It has other relatives in our Western Pennsylvania area such as Swamp Milkweed - Asclepius incarnata, Four leaved Milkweed - Asclepius quadrifolia, Whorled Milkweed - Asclepius verticillata and Butterfly Weed - Asclepius tuberosa. It’s been said “It’s all in the name”. Well who wants a plant with the word “weed” in its name? The word “common” does not inspire either. The Milkweed habitat is described with words such as roadside, ditches and waste areas, truly unfortunate names and descriptions for these very special plants.
The milkweed family is valuable because it attracts many pollinators, has a beautiful bloom, and emits a heavenly scent. Insects like bees, moths and butterflies go from plant to plant on their daily rounds to sustain their survival and life cycle. When they do alight, they deposit pollen from many other plants here and there, allowing those they visit to create flowers, vegetables or fruit. These pollinator insects also need a plant onto which they can lay their eggs and which will then feed the resultant offspring. Enter the Common Milkweed. The Monarch butterfly uses this plant exclusively on which to feed and lay their eggs. When they fly to our area from Mexico, they head straight for the Milkweed. If you have ever had occasion to break open a stem of the Milkweed plant you will encounter a white, milky, unpleasant sap that can be irritating to the skin. The Monarchs ingest this and being filled with the taste of the Milkweed the birds don’t want to eat them. The Milkweed saves their lives. That’s pretty special.
Milkweed seeds and plants can be found in catalogues but try taking a pod or two of seeds from one of these local plants in the fall. Then sow them in the back of your own garden border. There will be hundreds of seeds in the pods making them tricky to separate and plant individually so just scatter them at will. A fun way to scatter them is to make a seed bomb. Mix clay, compost and seeds into a quarter-sized ball. Then toss them onto ground where you want to encourage Milkweed. Save Our Monarchs has details on their website. This is a great planting activity to do with children. Check out the many ways to plant Milkweed seeds on YouTube. You will eventually have some beautiful flowering plants and the Monarchs will automatically show up for the party. The Butterfly weed - Asclepius tuberosa is a great one to plant because it’s perennial, shorter, more compact and has beautiful yellow-orange flowers. Interestingly the butterflies that favor these are almost always the same exact color as the flowers. That’s exotic!
It’s been said that to find an expert, you need to travel at least twenty five miles from home. We’re very fortunate here in Western Pa that our Monarch experts in the field, The Milkweed Family, thrive here and support a multitude of pollinators that work tirelessly to keep all our plants producing year after year. So skip the exotic but virtually useless plants and encourage those that will make a difference in the healthy plant life of our agricultural region. Bring them into your yard and welcome them for the very special and exotic plants that they are.
*Master Gardeners are available for group presentations. Contact the office for specifics. Certified Master Gardeners are local volunteers trained by Penn State to answer Horticulture questions with properly researched information. For a “best practices” answer to your question, call Penn State Jefferson County Extension at 814-849-7361, Ext 508, email JeffersonMG@psu.edu, or mail your question to 186 Main St., Suite 3, Brookville, PA 15825.
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