Common milkweed

The sticky white latex that flows from the leaf and stem of the plant gives common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) its name. People have used the latex topically to remove warts, and tried to use the latex in wartime as a substitute for rubber. For the plant, the latex is a defense mechanism. The stickiness deters insects from eating the leaves, and the cardenolide glycosides in the latex are toxic.  Milkweed is a poisonous plant to humans.

For insects that have evolved to make use of the toxins, the latex is a protection from predators. Birds that prey on Monarchs, the best-known of the milkweed insects, vomit after eating them. The curious thing about many milkweed insects is the red and black (or red and orange) coloring that they share, which biologists call aposematic coloration.

The milkweed plant is homely. The flowers and buds are attractive, but the thing that brings me back to milkweed again and again is the fruit: the pods, the seeds, and the floss. There’s something uncommonly beautiful about milkweed at this stage:

There’s more to show about milkweed – the butterflies and other insects that are attracted to the flowers. In my area, common milkweed flowers in July, hairstreaks, fritillaries, skippers, and moths all cluster on it. Just one example:

Milkweed is my longest-running photographic project. The photographs in this post go back a decade and more – and I finally got around to collecting my thoughts about the web of life and beauty surrounding this plant.


8 thoughts on “Common milkweed

  1. What a paean to milkweed. I don’t remember ever seeing a picture of a milkweed seed and floss with a reflection. In your last picture, I initially saw the moth’s head as belonging to the piece of the milkweed flower behind it.

    • The floating milkweed seed is an old favorite, the result of a long search to find the right setting for the seed and floss. I originally identified the moth as Salt Marsh Moth (Estigmene acrea) but now I think it’s another, similar species.

  2. A very nice tribute, and we’re enjoying the photos a lot. The shot of the buds is terrific, they might be some sort of sugar-frosted berries, or highly decorative miniature pumpkins. When the seeds are still tightly grouped, they always remind me of scales on some sort of antediluvian fish.
    I haven’t read about any post-WWII projects to use the latex to make rubber, but I think there is a project again in Germany, working on goldenrod rubber.

    • That reference to using milkweed latex in wartime goes back to WWII. The latex concentration is low in milkweed sap, so it wasn’t feasible. Glad you liked the photos – it was fun looking through milkweed images and rediscovering that bud picture.

  3. What a wonderful collection. The photo of the oozing milk is especially clever. I don’t remember seeing something like that before. I smiled at your description of the plants as generally homely. It’s true enough, although some of our more delicate milkweeds, like the slender and whorled, aren’t quite as likely to qualify for that description: at least, in my opinion.

    Salt marsh moths are quite common here, and I assumed that was the moth in your last photo. It’s an especially attractive one, and certainly complements the flower.

    • I was thinking of common milkweed, the stems and leaves, as plain. The flowers aren’t. And the seeds and floss are something else again. There are milkweed family flowers that are exceptional.
      I’ve only seen that moth once, at Cape Cod. Glad you liked the set of photos!

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