Marvelous Milkweeds

Asclepias incarnata pods in A Garden For All by Kathy Diemer

Asclepias incarnata pods (photo credit: Kathy Diemer)

As a child, the pods of milkweed fascinated me.  To break them open and watch the silky seeds float through the air filled my mind with wonder and awe.  Where would these little flying seeds finally end up?  How far could they travel as they were carried along by the wind?  I imagined them landing in faraway places and popping up the next year to provide fun and entertainment to the children of those neighborhoods.  Even now, the dimpled teardrop shaped pods still amuse me. But, there’s more to the milkweed plant than just a curious pod . . .

Bees and butterflies flock to Milkweed's blossoms in A Garden For All by Kathy Diemer

Bees and butterflies flock to Milkweed’s blossoms (photo by: Kathy Diemer)

Ascelpias are widespread natives to the U.S. and a major food source for the monarch butterfly, as well as other native butterflies, hummingbirds, moths and insects.  In fact, the common milkweed, Asclepias syriaca, is the host plant for the monarch butterfly, which is why it’s so important to preserve these areas for the stands to thrive.  Milkweed was named for the bitter milky white sap it produces when a leaf is bitten or removed from the stem.  While this distasteful sap is said to be toxic, it actually acts as a predatory repellant for the monarch caterpillars that consume it. 

Strawberry Fields with Asclepias incarnata in A Garden For All by Kathy Diemer http:

Asclepias incarnata with Strawberry Fields Daylily (photo credit: Kathy Diemer)

Named in honor of Aesculapius, Greek god of medicine, milkweed was once used to treat a variety of ailments. Now the alluring milkweed has earned a spot in sunny gardens zoned 4-8, flaunting a range of sizes, colors, and fragrance that are a magnet to butterflies.  You will immediately recognize the common milkweed, a tall plant (up to 5′) with large, sturdy tropical leaves and sweetly scented violet-pink pom-poms drooping from the stem.  Asclepias syriaca grows wild in open meadows and along streams, but will thrive wonderfully in a garden setting as well (although it may only grow to about 3′).

The magical pods of milkweed in A Garden For All by Kathy Diemer

The magical pods of milkweed (photo by: Kathy Diemer)

Swamp milkweed, Asclepias incarnata, is named for the landscape it prefers to inhabit. Incarnata is a more delicately leafed plant, but still grows to a sizable 4′ in optimum conditions.  Unlike common milkweed, the flowers of swamp milkweed form at the top in whorls of rosy pink.  Lightly fragrant, sometimes described as vanilla scented, they can also be flowered in white clusters (A. incarnata ‘Ice Ballet’). Although it prefers wetter soils, Asclepias incarnata will grow in a regular garden setting as long as the soil stays reasonably moist (I use mulch to retain moisture).  As the season winds down, incarnata gets a deep bronze cast to its foliage that provides a stunning contrast to the pods formed above.

Asclepias syriaca pods in A Garden For All by Kathy Diemer

Asclepias syriaca pods (photo credit: Kathy Diemer)

Butterfly milkweed, Asclepias tuberosa, is the most tolerant of dry conditions and actually prefers a well drained, loamy soil.  Topping out at around 20″, tuberosa is a much shorter version of milkweed and will work well at the front of the border or in amongst shorter plants.  Indifferent to the common color palette of the traditional milkweed, butterfly milkweed flaunts itself in fiery shades of bright red-orange (or yellow, A. tuberosa ‘Hello Yellow’) that will add a patch of pizazz to a dull spot in the garden.  Asclepias tuberosa has finer leaves like incarnata, but does not have the milky sap when eaten by pests, which makes this plant susceptible to aphids and other critters.  To find out more about friends of milkweed read my blog on  Butterflies

Any milkweed will add captivating form and delectable fragrance to your garden, while inviting local butterflies and insects to visit for awhile.  Give an asclepius (or two) a home in your landscape and enjoy all the insects that stop by as a result ♥

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