Milkweed helps sustain butterflies

In the early 1600s, John Tradescants was a shareholder in the Virginia Company and responsible for sending starts of many of America’s plant treasures into the waiting gardens of English collectors.

According to Tovah Martin’s book Heirloom Flowers, Tradescants went on marathon collecting sprees and introduced to European gardeners hundreds of North American native plants — everything from Goldenrod to Turtleheads.

One of the plants he sent home was Asclepias syriaca — Common Milkweed.

Native Americans used milkweed for fiber, food and medicine long before John Tradescants and the Virginia Company showed up. They learned how to prepare Asclepias syriaca as a vegetable — it can be edible if cooked properly. They brewed concoctions for the relief of back pain. And for constipation. They used Milkweed fiber to weave into ropes and a coarse cloth.

In the fall, milkweed seeds are carried by the wind on fluffy “comas” or parachutes just like dandelion seeds in the spring. Milkweed seed is much more buoyant than cork and it’s warmer than wool. It was used to make life jackets and stuffed in pillow cases during World War II. Today milkweed is grown and used as a hypoallergenic filling for pillows and as insulation for winter coats.

Common Milkweed isn’t fussy about soil, it’ll take on sandy, clayey or rocky ground if it can find full sun. It grows equally well along rivers or dry roadsides. You can grow it from seeds or cuttings or you can find locally sourced plants in area greenhouses and nurseries. But if you’re lucky, God might plant it for you. One of my neighbors has a stand of milkweed growing in her front yard. She says God did it.

It showed up one spring and despite annual pulling and digging, the milkweed continues to provide a tall green screen for her porch. The bonuses are its early summer rose-colored blossoms and their divine fragrance.

Common Milkweed is God’s plan for the Monarch butterfly. Milkweed is essential for the Monarchs, who lay their miniscule white eggs on the hairy underside of the leaves. When the eggs hatch and caterpillars emerge, they eat the leaves which provide them with sustenance and protection. As the caterpillars ingest the leaves, chemical poisons are transferred to their developing bodies causing them to exude a nasty smell and a repulsive taste. Milkweed leaves are so toxic natives in South America used them to make poisoned arrows.

God had a life plan to protect the Monarchs. But by planting more and more GMO corn and soybeans and using gallons of insecticide to optimize harvests, we’ve eliminated their food source. You can see for yourself. Take a drive into Blair County’s farmland. See those tight rows of corn in weedless fields? No milkweed there and no butterflies.

Doug Tallamy, the author of Bringing Nature Home: How Native plants Sustain Wildlife in Our Gardens, says “Without milkweeds there can be no Monarchs.”

Ask yourself. Have I seen a butterfly today?

Contact Teresa Futrick at