Common Milkweed: Early Snow

A bright and windy October day. Leaves flying, flags flapping. And a sudden drift of snowflakes across the busy highway.

Snowflakes? No, no, it’s 65 degrees, the sun is shining…

The “snow” appears to be coming from this abandoned (but spectacularly colorful) gas station.

I look closer to investigate the white puffs flying through the air.

And discover, not snow, but Milkweed.

The seeds have ripened inside the big warty pods. On a dry day like today the pods crack open, and the seeds are laid bare. The breeze dries out the damp silky filaments attached to each seed, and fluffs it up into a parachute. The tips of the parachute threads are stuck into the grooved tip of the pod, and each puff of wind frees another one. They pull out one by one, like tissues from a tissue box.

A very effective way to disperse seeds, obviously. And the more seeds that get dispersed the better, because Milkweed is such an important plant. It’s the plant that Monarch butterflies live on—they lay their eggs on Milkweed, and the larvae will eat no other kind of leaf.

I once worked on a project where we raised Monarch caterpillars by hand. The caterpillars started off the size of an eyelash, but they grew fast. It was beyond belief how much Milkweed those little guys could chew through in a day. Each monarch larva needed about two dozen leaves, which is three or four plants’ worth.

Monarchs need Milkweeds.

Milkweeds are a whole group of plants, the genus Asclepias. This is Common Milkweed, well-named since it’s by far the most common. There are dozens of other Milkweed species, which Monarchs will also use.

Now it’s perfectly possible for Monarch-lovers to grow Milkweed plants. I’ve tried. But I’ve found that like a lot of wildflowers, it’s, well…wild. Milkweed tends to grow where it wants to grow, not in the corner of my garden that I assign to it. No, I don’t have much luck in cultivating Milkweed. I just sort of let it happen.

There are dedicated gardeners who patiently germinate Milkweed seeds, nurture them, transplant them, tend them. But it’s a time-consuming process, and let’s face it, not many of us are going to take the time to pamper Milkweed. But the good news is that Milkweed can garden itself, if the snowflake-seeds happen to land in open space where it can grow.

Milkweed is lanky, awkward and not the world’s most beautiful plant, perhaps. But we need to make space for it–more space than a derelict gas station has to offer. If we want to see this sight:

we have to have Milkweed.

Milkweed happens. Just give it room.

 

Thanks to Wells Horton for this regal photo of a Monarch caterpillar eating Milkweed.

 

 

 

 

 

Check out more of Wells Horton’s photos on http://wells-horton.smugmug.com/ and also on Facebook.

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About unmowed

I'm a writer and a botanist who loves the weirdly weedy places of the world.
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1 Response to Common Milkweed: Early Snow

  1. George says:

    A lepidopterist friend, David Bouton, not only cultivates milkweed but has a system to prune them so that they produce young shoots throughout the summer providing a continuous source of food for the monarch caterpillars.

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