Monday, March 2, 2015

The Milkweed Plant – An Important Part of our Eco-System

Photo source: wikimedia commons

A few days ago I wrote an article, The Monarch Butterfly - In Danger of Disappearing, about how the population of the beautiful monarch butterfly is declining. One of the main reasons for this decline is the loss of the milkweed plant. 

The milkweed plant is the only plant on which the monarch butterfly will deposit her eggs. The reason for this is that the milkweed plant is somewhat toxic. Once the monarch caterpillars emerge, they eat the leaves of this plant which in turn makes them toxic as well. The bright colors of the monarch are a warning to the birds that “you don’t really want to eat me!” It may not kill the bird, but it will make them think twice about ever eating another one. 

With the planting of so many genetically modified crops, the farmers are using more and stronger herbicides which is not only killing the unwanted “weeds” in their crops, but it also killing everything around the crops including the milkweed plants. 

Milkweed gets its name from the milky like sap that come from cutting the plant. (Be sure not to get it in your eyes!) There are many varieties of the milkweed plant and it goes by many different common names, such as the “pink butterfly plant”, be sure you chose a plant from the family of Asclepias to get a true milkweed. Varieties of this plant grow wild on most of the US in zones 3-9. The common milkweed, (Asclepias syriaca), is native to the eastern and central US. It will grow to approximately 48” high and blooms late June through July.

 Photo source: wikimedia commons - Jason Hollinger

Common milkweed is a perennial that is drought, deer and rabbit resistant. It grows well in poor soil as long as it has good drainage and plenty of sunlight. It is recommended that you plant seeds in the fall, however, the plants may not flower the first year. If you want flowering milkweed the first year, you might want to purchase a few already started pots from your local nursery. 

Once your milkweed plants bloom, you can remove the seed pods and keep the seeds for more plants the next year. The plant will spread on its own as it grows from rhizomes underground. The seed pods will also open and release seeds into the wind similar to a dandelion, but this may cause your plants to grow in areas where you don’t want them. 

The milkweed plant will not only bring the monarch butterfly to your flower garden but it is a source of nectar for hummingbirds and many other species of butterflies as well. Let’s all plant some milkweed this year and help the population of the monarch butterfly flourish once again!

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