All members of the genus  Asclepias are appealing to Monarch butterflies and caterpillars. Nine species grow in Kane County but only four are available at local nurseries. I’m going to show you six more today.   Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) is, by far, the best butterfly attractant.   The dense, domed, dusty pink, delightfully fragrant blossoms bloom at the top of 3-5’ tall, branched, hairy stems in July and August.  Numerous opposite dark green leaves intervene between the blossoms. It is found  in a great variety of disturbed, unshaded habitats, along railroad tracks, roadsides, and in cornfields.  It is also found in prairies, dry pastures, and the foredunes of Lake Michigan.

Since the advent of Monsanto’s Round-up Ready corn and soybeans, however, farmers spray their fields with the herbicide Round-up that destroys everything except the immune crops.

Researchers: GM Crops Are Killing Monarch Butterflies, After All—By Tom Philpott | Wed Mar. 21, 2012 10:00 AM PDT

The researchers estimate that the amount of milkweed in in the Midwest plunged by 58 percent from 1999 to 2010, pressured mainly by the expansion of Roundup Ready genetically engineered crops. Over the same period, monarch egg production in the regions sank by 81 percent. And it turns out that monarchs tend to lay more eggs on milkweeds that sprout up in and around cultivated fields. So when farmers snuff out the milkweeds with Roundup, they’re exerting a disproportionate effect on monarchs.

The answer?  Many groups, including The Wild Ones, have started campaigns to “Plant Milkweed.” Plant it in your own yard; encourage your neighbors, schools, municipalities, churches, and parks to do so, also.

Let’s take a look at other native milkweed that grows in  the area:

Swamp Milkweed (Asclepias incarnata)  at the Chicago Botanic Garden 7/25/08

Rounded clusters of dark and light pink flowers bloom  at the top of  2-4’ erect stems of the Swamp Milkweed from late June to late August.  Narrow lance-shaped leaves cover its smooth stems.  It  is common in wet meadows, marshes, and wetlands, but in my experience, is difficult to grow in the home garden.  It needs constant moisture to thrive, such as a marsh or a shoreline.  it didn’t do well in my rain garden, because the moisture fluctuated from wet to dry.  Perhaps others of you have had different experiences.

I found a lovely patch of Whorled Milkweed (Asclepias verticillata) growing in our church prairie last September, but did not get a decent photo.

Its light green, linear leaves grow in whorls around the short stems interspersed with clusters of fine, fragrant flowers, followed by shiny, slender, small pods. It is common in dry, grassy roadsides, pastures, railroad tracks, and abandoned fields.

Whorled Milkweed  Photo by Jack Shouba

Sally Wasowski tells us in Gardening with Prairie Plants that while Whorled Milkweed is considered weedy in the Chicago area, it displays masses of delicate white flowers within Little Bluestem prairies just west and south of us–sounds lovely, doesn’t it? .

I’ve never seen it in a garden situation, so I don’t know what to suggest.  If anyone has any experience or knowledge, please share.

These two milkweeds, along with Common Milkweed and Butterfly Weed are fairly easy to find in local commerce.  The following are more difficult to find and one will probably have to order them from a catalog.  If any of you readers are involved in the trade, take heed.

I  planted Prairie Milkweed (Asclepias sullivantii) one year, many years ago, but it only lasted a couple of seasons.  One to several rounded flower clusters bloom at the top of the 3-4’ tall, smooth hairless plant. It is similar to Common Milkweed–its flowers, however, are larger and a deeper pink; it doesn’t grow as tall; and it is glabrous rather than pubescent.  Dick Young says it more succinctly: “It is a handsome, erect perennial similar to the Common Milkweed, without fuzz. “   In nature, Prairie Milkweed it is found in mesic or moist prairie or occasionally, roadside ditches.   it is rhizomatous, but waits several years before spreading under ground.

Sullivan’s Milkweed  (note caterpillar)  Photo by Jack Shouba

I’ve never seen the uncommon Purple Milkweed (Asclepias purpurescens), but I definitely want to.   Dick Young calls it an elegant perennial with “strikingly beautiful purple-pink blossoms in late June and early July.”  It grows 2-3’ tall.  It is found in mesic prairie, but more often at woodland edges and thickets.

Purple Milkweed  Photo by Jack Shouba


Don’t confuse Poke Milkweed with Pokeweed.

Poke Milkweed (Asclepias exaltata) is a high quality, uncommon plant–its species name tells it all;  Pokeweed (Phytolacca americana), on the other hand, is, well, a weed.

Poke Milkweed, at 6’, is a stately woodland denizen. It is found along roads in semi-shade, says Swink & Wilhelm, but I have never seen it.   Its flowers are always described as drooping–but drooping sounds so sad and this is not a sad plant–it’s exalted, for goodness sake.  Should we call the umbel flowers nodding or dangling?  Dripping?  Cascading?  Or how about arching?  Hanging like Christmas tree ornaments?  Like fireworks exploding?

How would you describe the exquisite blossoms?   Take a look for yourself–isn’t it gorgeous?  I definitely want some of these.

Poke Milkweed   Photo by Jack Shouba

I rarely write about anything that I’m not familiar with, but this has been an exception and  a real learning experience for me; I hope it has been for you, as well.

While I know Common Milkweed is the most attractive milkweed to Monarchs, I was not able to find any information on the web about the degree of popularity of the other species of Asclepias.  Do any of you have that information?

I would suggest that we all plant some of each kind.   While only Monarch caterpillars eat the leaves of milkweed species, many, many other butterflies nectar on the flowers.

These less well-known native milkweeds will be a beautiful and useful addition to your gardens and are worth seeking out.

I want to thank Jack Shouba, once again, for his stunning photographs.  I can always count on Jack to supply the perfect photo when I don’t have one that is appropriate.

Jack is a retired high school biology and chemistry teacher, Morton  Arboretum Instructor, naturalist for Campton Township, and avid nature photographer.

In addition, in his words:   Proud loser of a ‘best lawn” contest, along with Pat Hill 🙂

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