Overview

Comprehensive Description

Comments

Depending on the local ecotype, Common Milkweed is highly variable in appearance. The color of the flowers may be highly attractive, or faded and dingy-looking. This plant is often regarded as a weed to be destroyed, but its flowers and foliage provide food for many kinds of insects. Common Milkweed can be distinguished from other milkweeds by its prickly follicles (seedpods) – other Asclepias spp. within Illinois have follicles that are smooth, or nearly so. Return
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Description

This native perennial plant is 2-6' tall and unbranched, except sometimes toward the apex, where the flowers occur. The central stem is relative stout, pale green, terete, and usually short-pubescent (less often glabrous). The opposite leaves are up to 8" long and 3½" wide, broadly oblong in shape, and smooth along their margins. The upper leaf surface is pale-medium to dark green and hairless above, while the lower leaf surface is densely covered with woolly hairs that are very short. There is a prominent central vein along the length of each leaf, and finer side veins that radiate outward toward the smooth margins. When either the central stem or leaves are torn, a milky sap oozes out that has variable toxicity in the form of cardiac glycosides. Umbels of flowers, each about 2½-4" across, emerge from the axils of the upper leaves. These flowers are quite fragrant, with a scent resembling violets or pansies, and they range in color from faded light pink to reddish purple. Each flower is about ¼" across, consisting of 5 reflexed petals and 5 raised hoods with curved horns. The hoods are more light-colored than the petals. The pedicels of the flowers are light green to pale red and hairy. The blooming period lasts about 1-1½ months from early to mid-summer. The seedpods (follicles) are 3-4" long, broadly lanceoloid, and covered with soft prickles and short woolly hairs. At maturity, each seedpod split along one side to release numerous seeds that have large tufts of white hair. Dispersion of seed is by wind. The root system has long creeping rhizomes, promoting the vegetative spread of this plant. Cultivation
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Description

General: Milkweed Family (Asclepiadaceae). Common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) is a perennial herb growing from a deep rhizome. The hairy stems are usually solitary from a simple to branched and thickened base, and are 6-20 dm (1.9-6.5 ft) tall. The opposite leaves have broadly ovate to elliptic blades that are 10-20 cm (3.9-7.9 in) long and 5-11 cm (1.9-4.3 in) wide. The leaves are sparsely hairy above and densely hairy below, and the petiole is 0.2-1.4 cm (0.08-0.77 in) long. The inflorescence occurs in the upper leaf axils, and there are 20-130 flowers per inflorescence. The flowers are small, 11-17 mm (0.4-0.7 in), and bloom from May to August. The five petals are green to purple-tinged, and are topped by a crown of five erect lobes that are rose to purple, rarely white. The fruits are spindle-shaped follicles covered with soft hairs. The small, round, hairy seeds are 6-8 mm (0.2-0.3 in) in diameter.

Distribution: For current distribution, please consult the Plant Profile page for this species on the PLANTS Web site. This plant grows throughout the Great Plains ecoregion from southern Canada south to NE Oklahoma, NW Georgia, and Texas, and east from North Carolina to Maine.

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Alternative names

Virginia-silk, algodoncillo, silky swallowwort, herbe à la ouate, Seidenpflanze

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Distribution

Range and Habitat in Illinois

Common Milkweed occurs in every county of Illinois and it is quite common (see Distribution Map). Habitats include moist to dry black soil prairies, sand prairies, sand dunes along lake shores, thickets, woodland borders, fields and pastures, abandoned fields, vacant lots, fence rows, and areas along railroads and roadsides. This plant is a colonizer of disturbed areas in both natural and developed habitats. Faunal Associations
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National Distribution

Canada

Origin: Native

Regularity: Regularly occurring

Currently: Present

Confidence: Confident

United States

Origin: Native

Regularity: Regularly occurring

Currently: Present

Confidence: Confident

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Ecology

Habitat

Range and Habitat in Illinois

Common Milkweed occurs in every county of Illinois and it is quite common (see Distribution Map). Habitats include moist to dry black soil prairies, sand prairies, sand dunes along lake shores, thickets, woodland borders, fields and pastures, abandoned fields, vacant lots, fence rows, and areas along railroads and roadsides. This plant is a colonizer of disturbed areas in both natural and developed habitats. Faunal Associations
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Dispersal

Establishment

Adaptation: Common milkweed grows in sandy, clayey, or rocky calcareous soils. It occurs along the banks or flood plains of lakes, ponds, and waterways, in prairies, forest margins, roadsides, and waste places. This species hybridizes with showy milkweed (Asclepias speciosa).

Common milkweed is easily propagated by both seed and rhizome cuttings. Both seedlings and cuttings will usually bloom in their second year, although cuttings will occasionally bloom during their first year. Seeds and plants are available from many nurseries. Common milkweed increases by underground shoots and can be invasive. It is ideal in semi-dry places where it can spread without presenting problems for other ornamental species.

Propagation from Cuttings: Propagation by cuttings of the tuberous rhizome is easy and reliable. The cuttings should be made when the plant is dormant. Each piece of the rhizome should have at least one bud (they are about two inches apart). Timing of propagation is important. Harvest or divide plants and get the plants in the ground by late fall so they can develop enough root growth to survive the winter. Irrigation the first year will improve survival, and by the second year the root system should be well enough established so plants will survive on their own.

Both seedlings and cuttings will usually bloom in their second year, although cuttings will occasionally bloom during their first year (Kindscher 1992).

Propagation from Seed: Common milkweed is easily propagated from seed. Process as follows:

1) Collect seeds after the pods have ripened, but before they have split open. The seeds are wind dispersed, so be careful when gathering to place in a paper or burlap bag to avoid losing them.

2) Eliminate weeds before planting. Strip off any sod. Cultivate the soil to a fine tilth, firm the soil by treading or rolling, and rake lightly.

3) Seeds can be directly sewn into the ground in the fall. Sow the seed mixture (with fine sand for even distribution) at a rate of 1/8 oz per sq. yd (4 g per sq. meter) or as advised.

4) If planting in flats or in a greenhouse, common milkweed seeds should be cold-treated for three months.

5) The seed is very viable. It is not certain how long you can store the seeds and maintain their viability.

6) During the first summer, weed invasive plants and water as needed.

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Associations

Flower-Visiting Insects of Common Milkweed in Illinois

Asclepias syriaca (Common Milkweed)
(Insects suck nectar; most observations are from Robertson, although some observations are from Moure & Hurd, Betz, Krombein et al., Hilty, and Swengel & Swengel as indicated below)

With pollinia:

Bees (long-tongued)
Apidae (Bombini): Bombus griseocallis; Anthophoridae (Anthophorini): Anthophora abrupta; Anthophoridae (Epeolini): Epeolus bifasciatus, Triepeolus remigatus; Anthophoridae (Eucerini): Florilegus condigna, Melissodes agilis, Melissodes comptoides, Melissodes tepaneca, Peponapis pruinosa pruinosa fq, Synhalonia rosae, Synahalonia speciosa, Xenoglossa strenua; Megachilidae (Coelioxini): Coelioxys octodentata; Megachilidae (Megachilini): Megachile petulans, Megachile texana

Bees (short-tongued)
Halictidae (Halictinae): Agapostemon sericea, Halictus confusus, Halictus rubicunda; Halictidae (Sphecodini): Sphecodes ranunculi; Colletidae (Colletinae): Colletes latitarsis, Colletes nudus

Wasps
Sphecidae (Bembicinae): Bembix nubilipennis, Stictia carolina; Sphecidae (Larrinae): Tachytes aurulenta; Sphecidae (Philanthinae): Cerceris bicornuta; Sphecidae (Sphecinae): Prionyx atrata fq, Prionyx thomae, Sphex ichneumonea; Vespidae (Eumeninae): Euodynerus annulatus; Tiphiidae: Myzinum quinquecincta; Scoliidae: Campsomeris plumipes, Scolia bicincta

Flies
Mydidae: Mydas clavatus; Syrphidae: Eristalis dimidiatus, Mallota albipilis, Mallota bautias, Syritta pipiens, Tropidia mamillata, Tropidia quadrata; Conopidae: Physocephala texana; Tachinidae: Archytas analis, Belvosia bifasciata, Belvosia unifasciata, Linnaemya comta, Trichopoda plumipes; Muscidae: Helina rufitibia

Butterflies
Nymphalidae: Danaus plexippus, Nymphalis antiopa, Polygonia interrogationis, Speyeria cybele, Vanessa atalanta

Skippers
Hesperiidae: Achalarus lyciades

Moths
Sphingidae: Xylophanes tersa; Ctenuchidae: Cisseps fulvicollis

Beetles
Lampyridae: Photinus pyralis

Plant Bugs
Lygaeidae: Lygaeus turcicus, Oncopeltus fasciatus; Pentatomidae: Euschistus variolaria, Podisus maculiventris prd

Without pollinia:

Bees (long-tongued)
Apidae (Bombini): Bombus auricomus, Bombus pensylvanica fq; Anthophoridae (Eucerini): Svastra obliqua obliqua; Megachilidae (Megachilini): Megachile brevis brevis

Bees (short-tongued)
Halictidae (Halictinae): Augochloropsis metallica metallica

Wasps
Sphecidae (Philanthinae): Cerceris clypeata; Sphecidae (Sphecinae): Sceliphron caementaria

Flies
Culicidae: Aedes stimulans; Stratiomyidae: Odontomyia cincta; Bombyliidae: Anthrax sinuosa; Conopidae: Stylogaster biannulata; Tachinidae: Gymnoclytia occidua

Butterflies
Nymphalidae: Limenitis archippus, Speyeria idalia; Lycaenidae: Lycaena hyllus, Satyrium calanus; Pieridae: Colias philodice; Papilionidae: Battus philenor

Skippers
Hesperiidae: Epargyreus clarus, Pholisora catullus, Polites peckius, Polites themistocles

Pollinia Presence Unspecified:

Bees (long-tongued)
Apidae (Apinae): Apis melliera (Btz) fq; Apidae (Bombinae): Bombus pensylvanica (Btz); Megachilidae (Trypetini): Heriades carinatum (Kr)

Bees (short-tongued)
Halictidae (Halictinae): Augochlorella striata (MH)

Wasps
Sphecidae (Sphecinae): Sphex ichneumonea (Btz)

Butterflies
Lycaenidae: Lycaeides melissa samuelis (Sw)

Moths
Sesiidae: Melittia cucurbitae (H)

Found dead or entrapped on flowers:

Bees (long-tongued)
Apidae (Apinae): Apis mellifera

Flies
Tachinidae: Spallanzania hesperidarum; Sarcophagidae: Ravinia anxia; Muscidae: Neomyia cornicina, Stomoxys calcitrans

Moths
Arctiidae: Haploa colona; Noctuidae: Agrotis ipsilon, Caenurgina erechtea

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Molecular Biology and Genetics

Molecular Biology

Barcode data: Asclepias syriaca

The following is a representative barcode sequence, the centroid of all available sequences for this species.


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Statistics of barcoding coverage: Asclepias syriaca

Barcode of Life Data Systems (BOLDS) Stats
Public Records: 4
Specimens with Barcodes: 12
Species With Barcodes: 1
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Conservation

Conservation Status

National NatureServe Conservation Status

Canada

Rounded National Status Rank: N5 - Secure

United States

Rounded National Status Rank: N5 - Secure

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NatureServe Conservation Status

Rounded Global Status Rank: G5 - Secure

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Status

Please consult the PLANTS Web site and your State Department of Natural Resources for this plant’s current status and wetland indicator values.

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Management

These species are introduced in Switzerland.
  • Aeschimann, D. & C. Heitz. 2005. Synonymie-Index der Schweizer Flora und der angrenzenden Gebiete (SISF). 2te Auflage. Documenta Floristicae Helvetiae N° 2. Genève.   http://www.crsf.ch/ External link.
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Cultivars, improved and selected materials (and area of origin)

ASSY is readily available through native plant nurseries within its range.

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Milkweed is burned in the fall to eliminate dead stalks and stimulate new growth. Burning causes new growth to have taller, straighter stems (with longer fibers). It also stimulates flower and seed production.

When used for fiber, milkweed is collected in the autumn after the leaves have begun to fall off, the stalks turn gray or tan, and the plant dries up. If the milkweed stems will break off at the ground it's time to harvest. Breaking off as many stalks as possible encourages resprouting in the spring. The dried stalks are then split open and the fibers are twisted into string. Vast quantities of fiber plants are required for nets, regalia, and cordage.

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Relevance to Humans and Ecosystems

Benefits

Economic Uses

Uses: MEDICINE/DRUG

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Uses

Warning: Milkweed may be toxic when taken internally, without sufficient preparation.

Ethnobotanic: People have used milkweed for fiber, food, and medicine all over the United States and southern Canada. Milkweeds supply tough fibers for making cords and ropes, and for weaving a coarse cloth. Milkweed stems are collected after the stalks senesce in late fall-early winter. The dried stalks are split open to release the fibers; milkweed fibers are sometimes mixed with fibers of Indian hemp (Apocynum cannabinum). The bark is removed and the fibers released by first rubbing between the hands and then drawing the fibers over a hard surface. Twisting the fiber opposite each other and twining them together forms the cord. Often this is accomplished by rolling the fibers on the thigh while twisting them together.

The young shoots, stems, flower buds, immature fruits, and roots of butterfly milkweed were boiled and eaten as a vegetable by various indigenous groups of eastern and mid-western America. The Meskwaki steam the flower buds as a food source; they are nutritious but not considered very flavorful.

The Cherokee drank an infusion of common milkweed root and virgin’s bower (Clematis species) for backaches (Moerman 1986). The Cherokee, Iroquois, and Rappahannock used the sap to remove warts, for ringworm, and for bee stings. The Cherokee used the plant as a laxative, an antidote for gravel and dropsy, and an infusion was given for mastitis. The Cherokee took an infusion of the root for venereal diseases. The Chippewa made a cold decoction of common milkweed root and added it to food to produce postpartum milk flow. The Iroquois took an infusion of milkweed leaves for stomach medicine. A compound decoction of plants was taken to prevent hemorrhage after childbirth by the Iroquois. The Menominee ate the buds or a decoction of the root for chest discomfort. The Ojibwa used the root as a female remedy. The Potawatomi used the root for unspecified ailments.

Common milkweed was used by the Meskwaki as a contraceptive (Kindscher 1992, Erichsen-Brown 1979, De Laszlo and Henshaw 1954). A Mohawk anti-fertility concoction was prepared by boiling a fistful of dried, pulverized milkweed and three jack-in-the-pulpit rhizomes in a pint of water for 20 minutes. The infusion was drunk at the rate of one cup an hour to induce temporary sterility (Kindscher 1992).

Milkweed species as a group are known to contain cardiac glycosides that are poisonous to humans and livestock, as well as other substances that may account for their medicinal effect. Resinoids, glycosides, and a small amount of alkaloids are present in all parts of the plant. Symptoms of poisoning by the cardiac glycosides include dullness, weakness, bloating, inability to stand or walk, high body temperature, rapid and weak pulse, difficulty breathing, dilated pupils, spasms, and coma.

Wildlife: The cardiac glycoside in milkweed has also been useful as a chemical defense for monarch butterflies (Danaus plexippus). Chemicals from the milkweed plant make the monarch caterpillar's flesh distasteful to most predators. Monarch butterflies are specific to milkweed plants; this is the only type of plant on which the eggs are laid and the larvae will feed and matures into a chrysalis. Eggs are laid on the underside of young, healthy leaves. Monarch, Queen, and Viceroy butterflies are Müllerian mimics; all are toxic, and have co-evolved similar warning patterns to avoid predation. Milkweed species are attractive to many insect species, including the large milkweed bug, common milkweed bug, red milkweed beetle, blue milkweed beetle, and bees. Accordingly, this is a wonderful horticultural plant for landscaping to attract butterflies (particularly monarchs), whose numbers are declining and migratory routes changing due to lack of appropriate habitat.

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Wikipedia

Asclepias syriaca

Asclepias syriaca, commonly called common milkweed, butterfly flower, silkweed, silky swallow-wort, and Virginia silkweed, is a species of flowering plant. It is in the genus Asclepias, the milkweeds. This species is native to Southern Canada and of much of the conterminous Eastern U.S., east of the Rocky Mountains, excluding the drier parts of the Prairies. It grows in sandy soils and other kinds of soils in sunny areas. It was one of the earliest North American species described in Cornut's 1635 work Canadensium Plantarum Historia. The specific name was reused by Linnaeus due to Cornut's confusion with a species from Asia Minor.

Common milkweed is a perennial herb growing up to 2.6 m tall from a rhizome. The all parts of common milkweed plants produce white latex when broken. The leaves are opposite or sometimes whorled; simple, broad ovate-lanceolate; up to 25 cm long and 12 cm broad, usually with undulate margins and reddish main veins. They have very short petioles and velvety undersides.

The fragrant, nectariferous flowers occur in umbellate cymes. Individual flowers are about 1 cm in diameter, each with five cornate hoods and five pollinia. The seeds, each with long, white flossy hairs, occur in large follicles.

Uses[edit]

The plant's latex contains large quantities of glycosides, making the leaves and seed pods toxic to sheep and other large mammals, and potentially humans (though large quantities of the foul-tasting parts would need to be eaten). The young shoots, young leaves, flower buds and immature fruits are all edible raw.

Concerns about milkweed bitterness and toxicity can be traced back to Euell Gibbons, author of Stalking the Wild Asparagus (1962). It is theorized that Gibbons inadvertently prepared dogbane (Apocynum cannabinum), a poisonous look-alike instead. He devised a method to remove the bitterness and toxicity by plunging the young shoots into boiling water (not cold) and cooking for one minute, repeating the procedure at least three times to make the plant safe to eat. Gibbons' method was copied from book to book, dominating edible plants literature for forty years. Most modern foragers consider the bitterness/toxicity issue a myth. The plants have no bitterness when tasted raw, and can be cooked like asparagus, with no special processing.[1]

Failed attempts have been made to exploit rubber (from the latex) and fiber (from the seed's floss) production from the plant industrially. The fluffy seed hairs have been used as the traditional background for mounted butterflies. The compressed floss has a beautiful silk-like sheen. The plant has also been explored for commercial use of its bast (inner bark) fiber which is both strong and soft. U. S. Department of Agriculture studies in the 1890s and 1940s found that Milkweed has more potential for commercial processing than any other indigenous bast fiber plant, with estimated yields as high as hemp and quality as good as flax. Both the bast fiber and the floss were used historically by Native Americans for cordage and textiles. Milkweed oil from the seeds can be easily converted into cinnamic acid, which is a very potent sunscreen when used at a 1-5% concentration.

Many insects live on the plant, including the red milkweed beetle (Tetraopes tetrophtalmus), the large milkweed bug (Oncopeltus fasciatus), the small milkweed bug (Lygaeus kalmii), the milkweed leaf beetle (Labidomera clivicollis), the weevil species Rhyssomatus lineaticollis, and the Monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus). The larva of the Monarch butterfly specializes on milkweeds, and its populations fall when milkweeds are eliminated with pesticides.

Deforestation due to European settlement may have expanded the range and density of milkweed. The plant can become invasive; it is naturalized in several areas outside of its native range, including Oregon and parts of Europe.

Gallery[edit]

Notes[edit]

  1. ^ Thayer, S. (2006). The Forager's Harvest. Forager's Harvest. pp. 290–305. ISBN 0-9766266-0-8. 

References[edit]

  • Asclepias syriaca. USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service.
  • Lamoureux, G., et al. (1978). Plantes sauvages des villes et des champs. Fleurbec/Éditeur officiel du Québec. ISBN 2-920174-00-2. 
  • Lamoureux, G., et al. (1981). Plantes sauvages comestibles. Fleurbec. ISBN 2-920174-03-7. 
  • Brother Marie-Victorin (1975). Flore Laurentienne. Les Presses de l'Université de Montréal. ISBN 0-8405-0018-1. 
  • Buchanan, R. (1987). A Weaver's Garden. Interweave Press, Inc. ISBN 0-934026-28-9. 
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