This plant--which was, indeed, once common--thrives in almost any well-drained soil and produces a profusion of ball-shaped, lavender-to-pink flowers in midsummer. It grows 2-4 feet tall and is one of the easiest and fastest milkweed varieties to establish because it reproduces and spreads rapidly by rhizomes and seeds. It has an erect, narrow habit and produces distinctive seed pods with soft prickles that, along with its larger flower clusters, help to distinguish common milkweed from other varieties of milkweed. It doesn’t fare well in extreme heat and humidity, but it tolerates dryness and poor soils. Once found abundantly in fields and disturbed sites, common milkweed has dramatically declined in number due to land development, herbicides, and herbicide-tolerant GMO crops.
Milkweed flowers are amazingly complex. Insects must try to pull a sack of pollen from the stigmatic slit before transferring it to another flower. Larger butterflies, predatory wasps, and long-tongued bees are more likely to accomplish this task than smaller insects, which can become fatally entrapped by the flowers. The extremely fragrant flowers attract and benefit many pollinators, including the monarch butterfly and unexpected cycnia moth, which only breed on 12 varieties of milkweed and use the nectar as an early source of food. Monarch butterflies are uniquely adapted to the toxic, milky sap in the stout stem and thick leaves. Once the larvae have ingested the cardiac glycosides in the sap, they develop a bitter flavor and mildly poisonous quality that protects them from birds and other predators.
Native habitats are mostly disturbed sites, including croplands, pastures, roadsides, fence rows, ditches, old fields, and sand dunes along shorelines. Common milkweed is more suited for open areas, meadows, parking strips, small urban patches in the yard, and butterfly gardens. It can spread aggressively, so it’s best left out of formal gardens where it might crowd out other plants. When planted in shallow, compacted soil, it often remains more manageable. To control spread, remove seed pods before they open. To promote fresh growth and attract additional monarchs in a single season, cut stems back by a third after the blooms have faded. Leave some plants intact to harvest milkweed seeds in the fall. Note: When handling milkweed, be cautious about touching your eyes and make sure to wash your hands thoroughly.
Prefers full sun but adapts to part shade.
Grows 3-5’ or up to 8’ tall in ditches and gardens.
Prefers rich, well-drained soils, but adapts to medium-wet-to-dry clay, rocky, and sandy soils. It doesn’t need water unless it has extremely dry conditions. Overwatering can result in a deadly fungus.
Umbels of pinkish-purple flowers 3-4” across emerge from axils of leaves June-August; blooms last 1-1 ½ months. Individual flowers are ½” across with a star-shaped crown and five downward-curved petals. Soft, green seedpods are 3-5” long. In the fall, they split along one side and release scores of flat, brown seeds with tufts of white hair for wind dispersal.
Oval-shaped dark green leaves are up to 8” long with pointed tips and smooth margins.
Pale green stem is erect, stout, and mostly unbranched.
Host plant to 12 species of Lepidoptera larvae in the central Ohio area, including the monarch butterfly, Isabella tiger moth and delicate cycnia moth. The flowers are a source of nectar for many kinds of insects, especially long-tongued bees, honey bees, wasps, flies, skippers, and butterflies, such as fritillaries, hairstreaks, red admirals, and spicebush swallowtails. Other visitors include short-tongued bees, various milkweed plant bugs, and moths.
Medicinal, Edible, and Other Uses:
Traditionally, the white sap was applied topically to remove warts and the roots were chewed to treat dysentery. Infusions of the roots and leaves were used to treat coughs, typhus fever, and asthma.
Native Americans taught early settlers how to properly cook milkweed so that it was edible. Warning: only expert foragers should attempt to cook and eat milkweed.
Native Americans used the tough fibers of the stem to make strong rope. During WWII, the white seed floss, or coma, was used for life vests. Today, the coma is used in upholstery padding, pillows, and comforters.
A chemical extracted from the seed is being tested as a pesticide for nematodes.
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