Saturday, December 12, 2009

Native Treasures: Common Milkweed

We live in the Prairie State, yet only a small percentage of the original 22 million acres of tallgrass prairie still exist.  The plants of the prairie and savannah are tough, tolerant species that thrive on our weather extremes with minimal fuss and very little watering.  They may not be as showy as an Asiatic lily or a tropical canna, but lots of work is being done to improve cultivars for home gardens.  One example is the many new kinds of echinacea or coneflower on the market including Tomato Soup and Sunset, Sunrise, or Twilight.  I like to use native and native cultivars when I can as the prairie is such a unique ecosystem.  If you get a chance, take a stroll through the Schulenberg Prairie at the Morton Arboretum in July when the grass is highest and think about how our pioneer ancestors looked out across this sea of grass from their front porches.

One native plant I cultivate is common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca).  Most of the time it grows about knee height, however, in my rich soil this baby tops out around six feet.  I'm trying to get them to stay in the back border, but as most plants do, they have minds of their own. In summer they have heavy clusters of fragrant pale pink star-shaped flowers that attract a multitude of insects, especially monarch butterflies.  This is one of the monarch's host plants, although many butterflies like it.  Milkweed develops woody stems so they don't flop over and provide vertical interest in the garden.  Their milky sap can be poisonous and is one of the chief defenses of the monarch butteflies.  They taste nasty.  As kids, we learned quickly that the sap can glue your fingers together if you let it dry. 

My favorite things about milkweeds are their unique flower structure and their fabulous pods.  If I didn't let them seed, I would have a much tamer landscape, but I am fascinated by the many variable shapes and textures milkweed leaves, stems, and seed pods develop as they dry and split.  In a fresh snow, they are a collage of textures and colors.  Common milkweed is just one species, there are several out there in different sizes and colors, even the swamp milkweed that loves to be damp.

One of the many monarch butterflies having a snack.  See the star-shaped flowers and how delicate they are?

This is the native Asclepias variegata from the Smoky Mountains.  It was very short and growing in quite a bit of shade.

Click on this to get the full impact of the textures of asclepias in snow. Reminds me of fiber collage.

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