Creating a wildlife haven one plant at a time

Monday, August 1, 2016

The Not So Common Milkweed (in Georgia anyway)

Travels this summer took me to Michigan and Minnesota. I always know I've arrived in the Midwest when I begin seeing common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) all along the roadside. Once upon a time it grew humbly everywhere, but in many agricultural areas it has mostly vanished from the landscape. I have yet to find it growing plentifully in North Georgia. Several times I've attempted to grow it in our home garden with limited success.

Common milkweed growing along side a soybean field
But in my sister's Michigan garden it grows abundantly. Here it finds a home between rocks, at the edge of the farmer's field who resides in the adjacent property, along the walking paths and in the pastures and meadows. This is a very good thing because areas along the Monarchs' migration route are in dire need of more milkweed. It is interesting to note that common milkweed is one of the few native prairie plants that can survive the annual disturbances that occurs when farmer's prepare their corn and soybean fields.

Gorgeous common milkweed standing tall

Monarchs are certainly the most recognized guest on milkweed, but there are many other insects that rely sole on milkweed plants for survival. The red milkweed beetle is a member of the long horned beetle family and is host specific to common milkweed, where its grubs feed on the roots and stem of the milkweed plant and overwinter in the stems while the adults feed on the foliage and flowers.

red milkweed beetles on milkweed

Monarch butterflies are not the only butterfly to enjoy the sweet nectar from these fragrant blooms. Many other species of butterflies are found visiting the blooms that often drupe under their own weight.



Swallowtail and red milkweed beetle on common milkweed

It is also popular with both long and short-tongued beetles, wasps, flies, and moths. My sister and BIL have an amazing apiary and many of the honey bees happily visit the aromatic blooms during the summer months.

honey bees on milkweed blooms

bumble bee on common milkweed flowers

Ants were scrambling around several plants which were teeming with aphids. These honey ants and aphids have a mutual relationship were the ants protect the aphids from predators in exchange for feeding on the sugary honeydew the aphids secrete.



When this milkweed is not in bloom it fades into the greenery that litters the Michigan roadsides still providing food for the monarch larva and milkweed beetle. But, it makes me wonder why Midwestern states have more success growing common milkweed than the Southeastern states. Maybe they are blessed with more loamy soil, which this milkweed species prefers, or perhaps they are more mindful about spraying herbicides and implementing appropriate mowing schedules. All steps that help conserve native vegetation and the insects they support. 

20 comments:

  1. I love see this milkweed in the meadows in our area. I too see many different insects using the plant. I just love pretty the flowers.

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    1. It is definitely a standout plant in meadows Donna. I would love to get it growing in our meadow. The efforts continue.

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  2. All my milkweed became infested with aphids this year, which eventually killed them. Also, monarchs won't lay eggs on plants with aphids. To get rid of the aphids, one must first get rid of the honey ants, though. I'm trying natural means first, which I hope are effective. The only consolation of all the aphids is seeing more aphid-eating ladybugs in the garden. They need to eat faster!

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    1. I had aphids on my milkweeds in late winter this year, but they disappeared without any action on my part. I had noticed syrphid (hover) flies hovering around them and I learned that hover fly larvae eat aphids just like ladybug larvae do. Lacewing larvae are also great aphid predators. It's fascinating to me to watch the interactions of the different insects that rely on my milkweeds to survive.

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    2. My butterfly weed gets a lot of aphids and they have always survived. I wrote a post Got Milkweed, which included a photo of syrphid fly larva eating aphids. http://gardeningsoul.blogspot.com/2015/08/got-milkweed.html I agree Gaia that watching the insects and plants work together is fascinating.

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  3. You pose an interesting question about the "common" sight of this Common Milkweed along the roadsides in the Midwest. It seems like people are more aware of its value now, but there have been years when the Milkweed was simply mowed down at totally inappropriate times--like times when the plants would likely be covered in Monarch eggs and cats. Until recently, Milkweed was listed as a "noxious weed" in my community. Let's hope these trends have changed for good. I'm thinking the prevalence of it has more to do with the excellent soil here in the Midwest, and the fact that the roots are very deep and able to regenerate quickly, as long as they aren't systemically eradicated.

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    1. Indeed, you have much friendlier soil Beth than we do. When we toured the Minneapolis gardens I kept admiring the rich soil. I think many old time farmers here in the South also would consider milkweed a noxious weed. I am so glad that attitudes are changing in the farming community, thanks to the organic farm and grow local movements. Smaller farmsteads are making a difference.

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  4. We have a good amount of Common Milkweed here in the Northeast, too, which is great. I'll bet there are other kinds of milkweed that grow better in the Southeast (somewhere I have a list of the different milkweeds that are native in each parts of the US). I hadn't seen Common Milkweed either until I moved up north. The blooms smell amazing!

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    1. Indie, I have a list of all the milkweeds native to Georgia, common milkweed being one of them. We grow other 4 other species of milkweed in our garden but I would love to get some common milkweed growing. I love their big leaves and fragrant blooms and the seed pods are spectacular.

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  5. I'll echo Indie's comment - have you been able to try any other species of milkweed? Maybe swamp milkweed or butterfly milkweed? (The key to the latter is NOT to overwater it - I learned to plant it right away, since it doesn't like pots, water it in and then leave it strictly alone. Only when I did that did it begin to thrive for me.) It's so much fun to be part of the effort to save the monarchs....

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    1. Oh yes, I grow several other species of milkweed, including lots of butterfly weed and swamp milkweed. It's the common milkweed that I haven't had any luck growing. We are a Monarch Waystation and enjoy participating in our citizen science efforts.

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  6. We have common milkweed here and there throughout our beds - it just sort of pops up. When I first saw it a few years ago, I had no idea what it was - I'm so glad that I let it stick around instead of pulling it, as many of my neighbours would have done. I don't really see many butterflies on it during the season, but the bees sure do enjoy it.

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    1. In general, do you get a lot of butterflies in your area? The key to having lots of butterflies is to be sure to include host plants in your garden. Otherwise butterflies are just fluttering through like a drive through restaurant. Their goal is to lay eggs so if you provide them with the right plants they will stick around.

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    2. I did see two butterfly caterpillars on some volunteer dill a this week, which was quite exciting!

      Generally though, we see a butterflies but nowhere near as many as I would like - I think more host plants are in order when I plant up my borders!

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  7. A plant I'd like to know more about Karin. Over the years I have seen numerous warnings about common milkweed being "invasive" followed with warnings against planting it in your garden. I have never had the opportunity to investigate why it is considered invasive. Does it spread underground or is it just a matter of it being a prolific self-seeder? I have a feeling it is because it is a self-seeder. I also wonder if common milkweed is more beneficial than the milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) I do have in my garden?

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    1. Milkweed populations are in peril across the U.S./Canada due to habitat destruction. It can reseed prolifically and does spread underground but I never consider native plants invasive. I would welcome it to repopulate in my garden. I think all milkweeds as beneficial. They all have their own little ecosystems. Swamp milkweed is another great one as is butterfly weed. I love them all!

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  8. I'm surprised that you aren't able to grow common milkweed in NE GA, Karin.
    I was able to get a very healthy stand going in Macon.
    The secret is clay soil.
    At my house in the sand... It barely grows, rarely flowers, and the monarchs don't seem to have any use for it, preferring my asclepias tuberosa.
    But... it certainly wasn't easy getting it established from seed...

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  9. Beautiful pictures of your milkweed and its visitors. I tried several varieties but they keep disappearing on me, except the tropical milkweed. Love all the information and great posts in your blog, lots to read and learn.

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  10. I really like the color of this asclepias. I am trying asclepias again, for the fourth time! I want beautiful visitors like yours!

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  11. Great post Karin and delighted you enjoyed your stay in MI. Where does your sister live? Happy first day of Autumn! :)

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"Don't wait for someone to bring you flowers. Plant your own garden and decorate your soul"

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