Growing up, I remember seeing puffs of cotton flying around in late summer. I quickly learned they were from the milkweed plant. Later I learned that some people were afraid of it or didn’t like it. Please follow me here as I bash myths and show you why this plant is valuable.
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Here are some fun facts before we dive in. The scientific name for milkweed, Asclepius, is named after the Greek god of healing. Historically, it was used for its healing and remedial effects for several different health issues.
Today, it’s one of the most beneficial native plants to work in your garden or yard. Let’s find out why! 🙂
1. Without it there’d be no Monarchs
Not only do Monarch butterflies love the nectar of milkweed, but it’s the only plant that the caterpillar (larvae) of the Monarch will eat.
Without milkweed, there wouldn’t be a single Monarch butterfly.
The amazing and beautiful Monarch butterfly, which seems to be our iconic summer staple, will travel 3000 miles to migrate down to Mexico for winter.
On their incredible journey back, they will lay eggs on milkweed to begin new generations.
Unfortunately, their population has decreased by about 90% over the past couple of decades, due to the destruction of milkweed and use of pesticides.
Thankfully people are beginning to understand the importance of this plant and leave them in their ditches or corners of their yards.
I have 2-3 big patches in my garden where I don’t mind them spreading and have a bunch of them in ditches and fields.
If they spread in my gardens, I don’t mind. They can easily be transplanted if they start taking over.
Note that there are different varieties for different parts of the country, so find which ones are native to your area and plant those.
Personally, I grow common, swamp, and orange butterfly weed varieties. The Monarchs love them all, and those are native to the midwest.
2. It supports a huge insect ecosystem
I am always fascinated by the variety of insects on a small patch of milkweed. The life cycle on this plant literally has it’s own little world!
Besides the Monarch, you’ll see a huge variety of butterflies that feast on this nectar. Hummingbirds also love the flower!
I’ve seen ladybugs, aphids, milkweed bugs, moths, milkweed beetles, and other insects that all play a part in the food cycle.
It also helps support a huge variety of pollinators that work to keep food on our plates!
3. It won’t kill you
Historically, milkweed was used for positive remedies. Today, I feel like too many people think it’s toxic and will kill you.
I think the major fear comes from horse owners (I am one myself). If a horse ingested a very large amount of it (it would have to be a lot!), it might indeed be harmful. Most horses don’t have access to 1-20 pounds of milkweed, though! Nibbling on it is not lethal, and you’ll find deer and rabbits eating them off often.
I say that to say that if you own horses, just be careful you don’t have “that horse” that insists on eating everything in sight, including all the milkweed.
My own horses eat around it and have never consumed it. Most animals won’t, as they know it won’t taste very good. But use precaution.
That being said, know that early settlers ate it as a vegetable as nearly every part of the plant is edible when harvested at the right time. Although I would never try this and suggest you don’t, history is cool and helpful to know.
It can also cause some eye irritation, so never touch your eyes after touching milkweed. I have a strict rule that I don’t touch my face until I wash my hands, just to be safe.
But before you get scared of this extremely valuable plant, know that many plants in our world are like this, and worse! If you are truly concerned with milkweed in your pastures but want to save it, then transplant it.
It won’t kill you, your animals most likely won’t eat it (although always observe first!), and you can teach your kids to enjoy it from a distance while teaching them how important it is.
Case solved. 🙂
4. Cleans toxic oil spills and fossil fuel messes
The silk (seed floss) of the milkweed plant was used in World War II to fill life jackets! It was also used as insulation for winter jackets and used as hypoallergenic pillow filling.
Presently, it absorbs toxic oil spill contamination, and one company has manufactured a milkweed cleaning kit that absorbs 53 gallons of oil at a rate of .06 gallons a minute! This is four times the absorption rate of other normally used methods and twice as fast!
I thought this was very interesting! Because really, how did they find that out?
5. Helps control garden pests
Milkweed helps control pests in your garden by attracting natural predators to it.
It attracts parasitic wasps and predatory flies. It also attracts other predatory insects that will eat stink bugs, aphids, thrips, and other pests that seem to destroy our gardens.
As as you can see in the picture, tree frogs may sit on it to rest or wait for breakfast. 🙂
It’s a cheap and easy way to support our wonderful pollinators while decreasing some annoying insects that we don’t want in our gardens anyway.
Here’s another fun fact: some use the “milk” to till into their soil to kill harmful nematodes and armyworms in corn, potatoes, soybeans, alfalfa, tomatoes.
Personally, I wouldn’t recommend this, as it may kill beneficial insects as well. I just thought that it was interesting.
6. Smells like lilacs
The smell of lilacs in the spring is one of my favorite smells, and, sadly, it doesn’t last very long.
One year, I walked through one of my fields in the early summer and stopped in my tracks.
I smelled lilacs!!!
I quickly scouted the area, trying to figure out where this glorious smell was coming from.
I finally found it in the pretty pink flowers of my common milkweed. I stood in front of these flowers, smelling deep, for a couple of minutes. I couldn’t believe how great they smelled! It was heavenly!
Now that one of my gardens has a couple of decent patches, it often comes through the open windows like the lilacs do and fills my house full of the faint smell of lilacs.
It’s a treat and especially pretty walking right past them. Not to mention that the milkweed is actually a proud, pretty plant. Especially those flowers!
Sitting on the back deck, watching the array of butterflies, along with bugs and birds, is one of my favorite relaxing things to do. Top that off with the hummingbirds stopping to dine from each little milkweed flower, and that just about tops off my day.
Where do you have milkweed growing? Do you plan to plant more? Share your story with me below, I’d love to hear about it! 🙂 Thank you for joining me!