If there’s one plant to work into your landscape, it’s milkweed. Native to North America, different milkweed varieties aren’t only beautiful, but they help support a wide variety of pollinators required for a healthy food chain that you and I depend on.
Milkweed also serves as a lifeline for monarch butterflies, an iconic North American insect that’s in deep trouble due to toxic pesticide use, climate change and devastating habitat loss.
Although some people view milkweed as a, well, “weed,” the truth is it provides more ecological services to humans compared to many common alien plant species that originated in other countries. For starters, milkweed species even help keep pesky bugs at bay. And some milkweed species are part of an important culture of healing in Native American history.
The landscape in the U.S. today is much different than the biologically diverse terrain Native Americans foraged on centuries ago. In the present-day United States, the stray milkweed plants that once grew in and around farm fields and wild meadows have been annihilated by chemical pesticides. For instance, Iowa State University researchers found a direct correlation between the use of glyphosate, the main ingredient in Roundup, and the decline in monarch butterflies that depend on milkweed to reproduce. We have GMO technology to thank for that. (1)
In just the last two decades, we’ve seen a nearly 90 percent decline in monarch populations. And a team of U.S. researchers identified glyphosate as one of the main driving factors. We’re not immune to exposure, either. In 2014, Norwegian research detected “extreme” levels of the herbicide in U.S. soy that often winds up in our food supply. (2, 3, 4)
With that in mind, growing milkweed in your yard and promoting milkweed plantings in your community’s housing developments, playgrounds, parks, school properties and roadside areas is more important than ever because so much is at stake.
Interesting Milkweed Facts
Because the relationship between butterflies, monarch migration and milkweed is such a complex, overwhelming issue, it sometimes feels like it’s out of our control. Nothing could be further from the truth!
Not only does milkweed build stronger biodiversity in your neighborhood and beyond, but can help bring communities together.
Here are some interesting milkweed plant facts I think you’ll find interesting: (5)
- Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus named the genus after Asclepius, the Greek god of healing
- Sometimes referred to as the “Silk of America”
- American milkweeds serve as a vital source of nectar for native bees and wasps
- During World War I, milkweed “floss” found in seed pods was used as a substitute for kapok
- Today, it’s grown commercially and used as a hypoallergenic filling for pillows and winter coat insulation
- Milkweed feathers are sometimes used to clean up pollution created when oil corporations spill oil into waterways
- Milkweed has been used on the tips of arrows because it contains a poisonous compound known as cardiac glycoside
- Handling milkweed can spur mild dermatitis
Benefits of Milkweed
Pest control, including stink bugs. Milkweed actually has the power to make your life easier in the garden. A Washington State University study investigating the pest-control aspects milkweed turned up some really interesting findings: (6)
- Milkweed is a cheap and simple way to support pollinator health and to get pests under control
- Native milkweed plants attract beneficial insects like parasitic wasps, carnivorous flies and predatory bugs that suppress common pests like aphids, leafhoppers, thrips and even stink bugs
Another recent study highlighted a Georgia peanut farm that successfully used milkweed plantings to increase tachinid fly numbers. Why would you want these insects? They act as parasites to pesty stink bugs, offering inexpensive, chemical-free pest control. (7)
Helps clean up fossil fuel companies’ messes. The “silk” found in milkweed pods is often utilized to help absorb contaminants during oil spills. Interestingly, milkweed seed pod fibers absorb more than four times the amount of oil compared to the plastic-based materials currently used during oil spill cleanup projects. Encore3, a Canadian company, created milkweed fiber-based kits that absorb 53 gallons of oil at a rate of .06 gallons per minute. How does that cleanup rate compare to the polypropylene products on the market? It sponges up spilt oil twice as fast. (8)
Answers to Common Milkweed Questions
What does milkweed look like?
What is the best kind of milkweed for monarchs?
The National Wildlife Federation identified these 12 milkweed species as the best to plant for monarchs. Check out this breakdown to see milkweed pictures and the native range of each plant. That’ll help ensure it’s the right milkweed for your state and conditions.
- Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca)
- Butterflyweed (Asclepias tuberosa)
- Swamp Milkweed (Asclepias incarnata)
- Antelope-horns Milkweed (Asclepias asperula)
- Purple Milkweed (Asclepias purpurascens)
- Showy Milkweed (Asclepias speciosa)
- California Milkweed (Asclepias californica)
- White milkweed (Asclepias variegata)
- Whorled milkweed (Asclepias verticillata)
- Mexican Whorled Milkweed (Asclepias fascicularis)
- Desert Milkweed (Asclepias erosa)
- Green Milkweed (Asclepias viridis)
To source native milkweed seeds appropriate for your area, check out this handy tool from Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation.
Final Thoughts on Milkweed
- Native milkweed plants are vital to support the monarch butterfly population in North America.
- A nearly 90 percent crash in the monarch butterfly population is largely blamed the herbicide glyphosate, which kills milkweed that once grew freely in farm fields.
- Farmers and gardeners are starting to plant more milkweed because it attracts beneficial insects that prey on pests like aphids, leafhoppers, thrips and even stink bugs.
- Consider making part of your yard a Monarch Waystation to promote a more biodiverse yard. Imagine the impact if we all did this!
The post Milkweed: The #1 Plant You Need to Start Growing ASAP appeared first on Dr. Axe.