In honour of the little cats munching away in my dad’s vase on my back porch I decided the featured flower for this week should be none other than the milkweed! (To read about the start of my monarch adventures you can read my post https://doctorb.blog/2019/08/06/raising-monarchs-part-1/). There are actually 14 different species of milkweed that are native to Canada, but I will focus on the 3 that are most commonly incorporated into traditional gardens.
Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca)
This is the most common milkweed plant I see growing “in the wild”, so no wonder it got the common name common milkweed! It is one tough little plant, tolerating even poor quality soil and drought. It typically grows up to 1 m (2-3 feet), and does best in full sun though can tolerate some shade. It has pink flowers that bloom throughout the summer from June to August. This milkweed is quite vigorous and will need to be controlled if used in small gardens as it can easily get out of hand. One way to help limit it’s spread is to bury a perimeter barrier, at least 15 cms (1/2 foot) tall, around where you want the milkweed clump to be.
Butterflyweed (Asclepias tuberosa)
Many people may not recognize this plant as a milkweed because it has vivid orange flowers rather than the more common shades of pink and purple. It is a bit shorter too, growing 1/3 m to 3/4 m (1-2 1/2 feet). It loves full sun, is also tolerant of drought, and shows off its beautiful flowers from June through August. I spotted many of them blooming along our local bike trail when I was out riding with my kids in July – the large clusters of bright orange flowers are hard to miss!
Swamp Milkweed (Asclepias incarnata)
As the name suggests, this milkweed prefers to be in moist or wet soils, though rumor has it that it can tolerate average well-drained soil too. It also does best in full sun but can grow a lot taller than the ones above – typically 1 – 1 1/2 m (4-5 feet). The bloom time is slightly shorter too, starting in July and lasting through August.
All members of the milkweed family have clusters of flowers that have the petals folded backwards along the stem. The seeds form inside pods, with each seed attached to its own little parachute of silky threads, that once ripe split open to release the seeds to the wind. My kids are always excited to catch these parachutes – or wishes as well call them. We hold them in our hand, make a wish and let them go! The sap is milky white and contains a cardiac glycoside, making it toxic to most animals. The monarch caterpillar, however, relies on milkweed as its only food source and has the ability to store the toxin into adulthood.
So why all the fuss about milkweed? First and foremost the monarchs NEED it. As mentioned this is the only plant that monarch caterpillars feed on and without milkweed the monarchs can not survive. But it is also a great nectar source for many other butterflies and bees. If you grow it in the garden, no doubt you will be rewarded with a variety of pollinators. Furthermore, Northern Orioles will use the previous years stems to construct it’s nest, and other birds will use the silky threads that attached to the seed to line their nests and make them comfy and cozy. And a cool fact that I learnt from the Canadian Wildlife Foundation is that the silky threads can absorb oil but not water, giving them the potential to be a great eco-friendly way to clean up oil spills.
This is one group of native plant that I intend to grow. I even have my site all picked out. I will plant them along the western side of my house, in the back yard where they will get lots of sunshine and the soil is less than ideal. It also is an area where my kids and dog do not tend to hang out. I will include some other nectar plants, such as Liatris spicata (which you can read about here: https://doctorb.blog/2019/08/03/featured-flower-dense-blazing-star/) and this will be my official butterfly garden. Only problem is I have decided this is a project for the spring, and I am not patient. At least I will have a garden to dream of when we are under a blanket of snow!