Milkweed: everyone's friend

Gorgeous, tough native attracts a variety of interesting creatures

In the Garden

May 30, 2004|By Nancy Taylor Robson | Nancy Taylor Robson,Special to the Sun

Some plants win your heart through their beauty, others through their ease of cultivation, and still others through their ability to attract birds, bees, butterflies and other pollinators.

But milkweed (Asclepias) scores the perennial plant trifecta. It's beautiful, producing clusters of tiny, brightly colored flowers perched like a Tiffany brooch atop tall, stiff stems. It's low maintenance and deer-resistant.

"Milkweed is native and is used to tough conditions," says Sandi Smith, horticulturist and perennial manager at Homestead Gardens in Davidsonville. "It doesn't like to be pampered."

And to top it off, milkweed is both habitat and food source for a host of fascinating critters.

"Asclepias is like an entire ecosystem," says Sara Tangren, owner of Chesapeake Native Nursery in Davidsonville.

In addition to monarch caterpillars and monarch butterflies, milkweed houses the milkweed beetle, the red milkweed beetle, the milkweed tigermoth caterpillar, the eastern milkweed seed bug, and red aphids along with their predators -- lady beetles, in both beetle and red dragon-like larval stage. Interestingly, virtually all of the creatures that congregate on milkweed are red and black or orange and black, colors that advertise their personal toxicity.

"The insects get toxins from eating the milkweed plant," explains Tangren. Milkweeds contain cardiac glycosides, which in large amounts are toxic to humans.

Uncommon beauty

Milkweed, which gets its common name from the milky juice that oozes from cut stems, is also sometimes called silkweed for the silky threads in the large, tear-shaped seedpods in fall. There are several types of milkweed, most of which are North American natives. Asclepias seratus is a tall (4-6 feet), large-leafed species with a flat pink flower cluster (umbel), often growing wild beside fields. A. curassavica, also known as bloodflower or bloodweed, a West Indian native, has brilliant red blooms. A. incarnata, called swamp milkweed, has small clusters of bright pink flowers and grows 5 feet tall. A. tuberosa, most often called butterfly milkweed or butterfly weed, grows 2-3 feet tall and wide and is usually flame orange, though hybridizers have been busily cooking up new colors for the garden.

"A. tuberosa 'Hello Yellow' is a bright yellow," says Larry Hurley, horticulturist at Behnke Nurseries in Beltsville. "And A. 'Gay Butterflies' is a mix of oranges, reds, pinks and yellows."

There is even a fragrant climbing member of the milkweed family, honeyvine milkweed (Ampelamus albidus). Found in damp, forested areas, it is on the endangered plant list in Maryland.

"It's a native Maryland plant," Hurley explains, "but it can become a weed in cultivation and is considered a noxious weed [which means you're legally obligated to eradicate it] in some Plains states. So right now, we're testing to see whether or not we should propagate it."

Despite the specific common name given A. tuberosa (butterfly milkweed), all milkweeds can host monarchs and other butterflies, which makes them great plants for virtually any garden. Tangren is giving away Monarch caterpillars from now through July to anyone with any kind of milkweed plant to host them. (See sources for contact information.)

"The caterpillars will do some plant damage," she explains, "But it is not fatal to the plant and you are rewarded with the beautiful butterflies."

In addition to its use as a butterfly hotel, milkweed is long blooming -- from July through frost. And the neon orange A. tuberosa can make a major statement in the perennial bed. "That orange really stands out in the garden," says Smith.

"I use A. tuberosa with Liatris [purple blazing star] and purple coneflower [Echinacea]," says Daryl Dutrow, owner of Wildlife Landscapes, a design firm specializing in wildlife habitat in Monkton. "It's also nice with black-eyed Susan [Rudbeckia] and primrose [Oenothera tetragona] 'Sundrops,' which is yellow."

Milkweed also makes a long-lasting cut flower and once cut dries well. In fall, the big, dramatic seedpods of A. seratus -- gorgeous silvery, tear-shaped shells that open to reveal a bed of creamy silken fronds and seeds -- are spectacular in dried arrangements.

Cultivation

Milkweed is a snap to grow, provided you match growing conditions to type. Swamp milkweed, a ditch plant, likes moist soil and can tolerate some shade, while butterfly milkweed, which is extremely drought resistant, needs full sun and very well drained soil.

"I often plant it on a sunny hillside to be sure it gets good enough drainage," says Dutrow.

Milkweed has a long taproot so you need to plant it young to prevent root damage, which can compromise healthy plant growth. Relatively slow growing, it is also late to send up shoots in the spring.

"You need to mark it in fall," warns Smith, "so you don't assume it didn't make it over the winter and dig it up accidentally."

Sources

Behnke Nurseries

1130 Baltimore Ave. (Route 1)

Beltsville, MD 20705

301-937-1100

www.behnkes.com

Homestead Gardens

743 W. Central Ave.

Davidsonville, MD 21035

410-798-5000

www.homesteadgardens.com

Wildlife Landscapes

14812 Jarrettsville Pike

Monkton, MD 21111

410-667-9453

Chesapeake Native Nursery

326 Boyd Ave., #2

Takoma Park, MD 20912

301-270-4534

Note: Farm is in Davidsonville. Please call before visiting.

www.chesapeakenatives.com

Spring Hill Nurseries

110 West Elm St.

Tipp City, OH 45371-1699

513-354-1509

www.springhillnursery.com

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