Milkweed is an interesting plant on a variety of levels. Most of us already know that monarch butterfly larvae feed exclusively on milkweed leaves, which renders the caterpillars and butterflies toxic to predators. And most of us know that the plant’s name is derived from the fact that it produces a milky-white, sticky sap when the leaf or stem is broken. But did you know the following crazy facts about the milkweed plant?
The flowers contain so much nectar that they were once used as a source of sweetener! The fluffy floss from milkweed pods is so buoyant that it was once harvested and used for filling pillows and life preservers! Milkweed contains latex and it has been seriously considered as a potential substitute for rubber. An oil made from the seeds can be used as sunscreen. Milkweed was a common folk remedy for treating cuts, poison ivy, and removing warts. And finally, South American natives used milkweed to poison their arrows!
But more importantly, did I mention how absolutely beautiful the flower is in June, when its sweet fragrance draws a constant procession of nectar-seeking butterflies? Or that when we were children, my siblings and I called the cottony seeds of milkweed “money stealers” and we would run in the fields trying to catch them as they floated off in the wind after stealing our “money”? Don’t ask me where we came up with this name, but it is a cherished memory.
There are many different species of milkweed in our part of the world. The one featured on this page is called Common Milkweed. It blooms from June until August, and it has purplish-pink flowers that are born in large, circular clusters. The distinctive seedpods that result are shaped like giant teardrops. Nectar-feeding bees and butterflies LOVE milkweed, and they play an important role in pollination. As these long-legged insects crawl across the globe of small flowers, their legs pick up pollen, which is then carried to other plants.
In addition, milkweed is famous for the community of other insects (especially beetles and spiders) that exclusively make the milkweed plant their home. There are many “biotic” interactions involving these insects, so the plant has been studied extensively as a microcosm of ecological principles. At right, you’ll see a colony of milkweed bugs feeding on the seedpod of a common milkweed plant. Like the monarch, they will become poisonous after ingesting the chemicals found in milkweed latex. In the gallery below, also look for the Red Milkweed Beetle.
Never pass a milkweed plant without giving it a thorough looking-over! There is no telling what you’ll find living there!
(Click on any photo below to open the slideshow.)