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What Time is it in Nature: Common Milkweed

July 16, 2012

Common Milkweed, Asclepias syriaca

Common Milkweed is a welcome resident here at Prairie Ridge! The plant is host to a wide variety of insects and attracts many pollinators. You’ll find Common Milkweed in the grassy areas of the Ecostation.

Common milkweed

What is Common Milkweed? Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) are tall plants with broad, hairy green leaves and dense, woody stems. Flowers form clusters of 20-130 blooms with a pale purple color. After the flowers are pollinated, the plants produce 1-2 large, bumpy pods containing seeds. The pods eventually break open and release the fluffy seeds so that they can be carried to new locations by the wind.

Why are they called Milkweeds? Milkweeds get their name from the thick, milky white sap they excrete when they are damaged.

Are Milkweeds toxic? Milkweed sap contains latex and a chemical called cardiac glycoside. The latter has an adverse effect on birds and mammals (including humans) and makes these animals sick when they eat Milkweed. The sap is toxic to many species of insects as well and likely provides the plant some protection from herbivores that might want to eat it.

Does anything eat Milkweed? Yes! Many insect species have developed a resistance to the toxins in Milkweed. These include Milkweed Longhorn Beetles, Milkweed Bugs, Ladybug larvae, and Monarch caterpillars. Most of these species store the plant toxins in their bodies so that they become toxic to birds and mammals too. You’ll notice that many of the insects on Milkweed are red. They are advertising the fact that they’re full of toxins to anything that might want to eat them!

You will find many species using the Common Milkweed at Prairie Ridge, including Monarch caterpillars. Come on out and see what you can find on our Milkweed!

What Time is it in Nature is a weekly feature highlighting the current plants, animals, and other wildlife at the Musuem’s public outdoor facility, Prairie Ridge Ecostation.  Find out more about the natural happenings at Prairie Ridge at our What Time is it in Nature Archive!

(Photos by Chris Goforth)

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