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The Many Haircuts Of Milkweed And The Monarch Butterfly

Updated on February 22, 2018
Fossillady profile image

Kathi writes about fossils and other earthly subjects, plus the natural history of Michigan, poetry, and more.


Sunk in the grass of an empty lot on a spring Saturday, I split the stems of milkweed and thought about ants and peach pits and death and where the world went when I closed my eyes . . . Toni Morrison (American Novelist)

Versatile Milkweed

If you didn't already figure it out, the term "haircut" in the title is simply a metaphor for the many "stages" of the milkweed plant. This also coincides with its various uses and benefits to us humans, but in particular, to the monarch butterfly, which I talk about later. As you browse through the photos and information, my hope is that you'll begin to understand how important this little plant is in the scheme of nature. I have only recently learned to appreciate how interesting and surprisingly beautiful the milkweed truly is. It started when I was photographing scenes at the beach where I work summers in Southwestern Michigan. Like the little bees and butterflies, what first caught my eye was its lovely floral stage with colorful star shaped petals emerging out from its perfect circular shaped umbel! How could I have missed this beauty after all these year, especially being the plant lover that I am? Anyway, my curiosity grew from there and so did some digging around. I now present to you an informed article revealing a new admiration for the common milkweed plant, Latin name, "Asclepia, syriaca"!


Milkweed Native Territory in The USA and Canada

Common Milkweed Territory as well as the Purple Milkweed
Common Milkweed Territory as well as the Purple Milkweed

Habitat and Hardiness

The milkweed plant is native to the United States east of the Rocky Mountain Range. Whereas I find it thriving in a sunny location rooted in sandy soil within the dunescapes near Lake Michigan, it also grows hardily in a variety of habitats including: pastures, prairies, clay and rocky calcareous soils, forests, flood plains or roadsides. Its survivalist, widespread distribution is due in part because it's a very hardy perennial plant with thick waxy leaves and tough stems. It belongs to a family of herbs and shrubs characterized by milky sap, tufts of silky hairs attached to the seed and (mostly) a climbing habit.

Native milkweed habitat among beach grass (Oval Beach in SW Michigan (USA) bordering The Saugatuck Harbor Natural Area
Native milkweed habitat among beach grass (Oval Beach in SW Michigan (USA) bordering The Saugatuck Harbor Natural Area
A healthy milkweed plants can reach over four feet tall
A healthy milkweed plants can reach over four feet tall

The milkweed brings up to my very door
The theme of wanton waste in peace and war.... Robert Frost

First Discoveries

Milkweed was one of the earliest North American species described in 1635 by Jacques Phillippe Cornut, a French botanist/physician. He was the author of Enchiridion Botanicum Parisiense, a study of flora in both Paris and eastern North America.

Swedish botanist, physician and zoologist, Carl Linnaeus, 1707-1778, has been called the father of modern taxonomy for laying the foundation of modern biological naming. He named the milkweed genus after Asclepius ( Greek God of Healing) for the many folk medicinal uses of the plant.

The intricate milkweed leaves are edible in small quantities, but first learn the differences between milkweed and the more highly toxic "dogbane".
The intricate milkweed leaves are edible in small quantities, but first learn the differences between milkweed and the more highly toxic "dogbane".

MILKWEED TOXINS (Harmful? Beneficial? or Both)

Milkweed is named for its milky juice within the leaves and stems consisting of a latex which contains alkaloids and several other complex compounds including "cardiac glycosides" valuable for treating heart disease. Though, overeating of most specie's leaves and stems can be toxic to large herbivores including humans. One must use caution if thinking about drinking the milky juice or including the leaves in a recipe. Symptoms of poisoning by the cardiac glycosides can have serious consequences including lethargy, bloating, inability to stand or walk, fever, difficulty breathing, rapid and weak pulse, spasms, dilated pupils, and coma. The good news is one would have to ingest a large amount of those sometimes bitter-tasting parts, approximately 10% of their own body weight, in order for it to cause serious effects, even death.

Early Europeans used the toxins as "folk medicine" to induce vomiting and fever, a common practice believing that disease got expelled from the body. Also, they used the milky latex juices as a remedy for treating warts.


Burdock Explains Milkweed Edible Parts and Old Myths

Native American Medicinal Uses for Milkweed

Who better to find uses for the versatile Native American plant than the Native American Tribes of yore.

The Cherokee Native Americans drank a concoction of milkweed root and a type of clematis called "virgin's bower" to calm backaches. They also used it as a laxative and as for breast inflammation caused by infection or "mastitis". In addition, they also used milkweed to alleviate kidney stones and edema, and for bee stings and wart removal.

The Iroquois produced a compound with milkweed to prevent hemorrhaging after childbirth and used the leaves for stomach aches.

The Chippewa made a cold remedy using the roots and added it to food to produce postpartum milk flow.

The Ojibwa used the root as a female remedy.

The Potawatomi used the root for bee stings.

The Menominee ate the buds as well as the root for chest discomfort.

Uses For the Seed Pods, Stems and Seed Tufts

Autumn seed pods split open exposing the seed tufts
Autumn seed pods split open exposing the seed tufts

More Uses For Milkweed

Besides the many medicinal uses of milkweed, the Native Americans also found the fluffy seed structures as an ideal insulation for moccasins.

The United States Army in WWII used the seed structures as insulation for life jackets.

The stems of the milkweed dries up in the autumn season and their fibers toughen enough to be used for making cords and ropes and for weaving a coarse cloth.

In the past, people all over the United States and southern Canada have used milkweed for fiber, food, and medicine.

Many early voyagers as well as Native American Tribes used the high dextrose content in the milkweed flowers as a source of sweetener.

The Bug Whisperer Educates and Entertains

Monarch Butterflies and Milkweed


Monarchs and Milkweed

The milkweed is a wonderful horticulture plant to include in the landscape for its sweet fragrance, but more so for attracting butterflies and moths. It also attracts beetles and spiders, even hummingbirds, but none more so than the monarch butterfly. The milkweed is the sole food source for the monarch larvae on which the eggs are laid on the underside of young leaves. Subsequently, the larvae feed voraciously on the leaves and then mature into the chrysalis. As a result of the monarch larvae ingesting the toxins, the compounds are secreted into their wings and exoskeletons when reaching adulthood. This makes them toxic to many potential predators who quickly learn the larvae and adults taste bad and/or make them vomit.

The milkweed toxins also make the plant beneficial in the garden for repelling certain pests from other nearby plants.

Champion For The Milkweed and Monarchs

Annie Hart of Cole Oklahoma has been called "Mother Milkweed" and gladly accepts the title. It started when she and others in her community had noticed fewer and fewer monarch butterflies showing up during the annual migration in route to Mexico. They had heard stories of monarchs turning alfalfa fields from purple to orange when they journeyed through their territory. They began to wonder what had happened. Turns out, part of the problem started in 2002 when a hard freeze in Mexico depleted 80 percent of the population. But another problem had been habitat depletion where the milkweed host plant can thrive. She realized that monarch butterflies needed both the milkweed flowers for the nectar that fuels the migration engine, and the milkweed leaves to lay their eggs. That started Annie Hart on a passionate mission and she began to organize monarch gardens in her central Oklahoma community being sure to include the milkweed. In 2007 she also organized an annual Monarch Migration Festival to bring light and awareness to the troubling situation.

Most people love flowers and are not necessarily fans of milkweed, but if Hart has her way, people will change their perceptions. Her group of volunteers maintain a seed bank of milkweed and make themselves available to any community in central Oklahoma interested in creating its own butterfly gardens. She even thinks it might be good to move the festival to a different community each year so that butterfly gardens spread and attract more of the migrating butterflies. She is even taking her campaign to save the milkweed along Oklahoma's roadsides appealing to the highway department to reduce the spraying programs. She believes every patch of milkweed preserved will hold monarchs if your provide them!

Insects and Milkweed

Look closely to find the spider camouflaged in the milkweed umbels
Look closely to find the spider camouflaged in the milkweed umbels
Can you spot the lady bug in the milkweed
Can you spot the lady bug in the milkweed
Milkweed Bug Frenzy
Milkweed Bug Frenzy

Autumn Milkweed Seedpods


Dreams on waking were like empty cocoons of moths or the split-open husks of milkweed pods, dead shells where life had briefly swirled in furious but fragile storm systems. . . Stephen King


Ode to Milkweed

Ode to Milkweed

amazing milkweed,

many a day I overlooked its beauty

such as the golden riches of its inner pods,

the pink and purple petals of its umbels,

or the intricate scarlet veins of its leaves,

Yet, when a child, time and again,

I had set its seed tufts free

and watched them fly away in the wind

where my dreams were carried away with a puff


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    • Simon Lam profile image

      Simon Lam 

      2 years ago


      I enjoyed reading your photo essay. I especially loved your photos. They're crisp and clear. Very beautiful!

    • Kristen Howe profile image

      Kristen Howe 

      4 years ago from Northeast Ohio

      Lovely ode and beautiful hub with matching photos for the milkweed. voted up!

    • profile image


      5 years ago

      Kath, another fabulously photographed, beautifully written, educational & informative article. Last summer I planted some tufts with intention, & let the wind and spirit carry the rest away. I have missed the Monarchs for a long time & want to reintroduce the milkweed to my neighborhood. I think your way with words, pictures, knowledge and love may open some eyes to the beauty and necessity of Milkweed. Future generations of Monarchs & the people who enjoy them will unknowingly have you to thank!

    • Fossillady profile imageAUTHOR


      6 years ago from Saugatuck Michigan

      Not surprising you noticed the monarchs hanging around the milkweed! Thanks for stopping by today . . . hope your week ahead is filled with joy! God Bless

    • teaches12345 profile image

      Dianna Mendez 

      6 years ago

      I remember walking through fields and seeing this plant. The pods were always interesting to see, and I remember how the monarch seemed to hang onto this plant. Very interesting read and well done!

    • Fossillady profile imageAUTHOR


      6 years ago from Saugatuck Michigan

      Hi Cat . . . well never have I seen the orange flowered variety of milkweed, but I imagine it is so bright and pretty! Glad you like the Stephen King quote . . . he definitely has a way with words! Thanks for stopping by and best wishes to you as well! Kathi :O)

      Hi Alicia . . . the girl with much scientific knowledge! Thank you for the lovely comment my friend! Hope all is well with you! :O)

      Hello Kim . . . good to see you! Thanks for the votes and will stop by to see what you're up to lately! Kathi :O)

    • ocfireflies profile image


      6 years ago from North Carolina


      Welcome back! And what a reemergence with this stellar hub! Milkweed is not always a wanted guest around here. : )

      I believe with the info you provide, I can change a few minds.

      Definitely V+!



    • AliciaC profile image

      Linda Crampton 

      6 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Your photos are so beautiful, Kathi! I loved looking at them and learning about the milkweed plant and its uses. Your hub is interesting and informative and well as being enjoyable to read.

    • cat on a soapbox profile image

      Catherine Tally 

      6 years ago from Los Angeles

      Hi Kathy,

      I loved this from start to finish! There is just SO much interesting and helpful info in addition to your outstanding photography. The seed pod images are superb, and the accompanying Stephen King quote made me smile. Here in California, our U.S. native Asclepias tuberosa with its orange flowers attracts many butterflies and is a host plant for the monarch.

      My best wishes to you for a happy holiday season,

      Cat :)

    • Fossillady profile imageAUTHOR


      6 years ago from Saugatuck Michigan

      Hi Eddy . . . good to see you sweet lady! I hope you have a fabulous weekend too! Will be over see what beautiful poems you've written lately! :O)

    • Eiddwen profile image


      6 years ago from Wales

      What a great read Fossil Lady and here's to wishing you a great weekend.


    • Fossillady profile imageAUTHOR


      6 years ago from Saugatuck Michigan

      Hello my darln . . . good to see you too, I will be over to visit and see what you been up to! My summer job is over and I find myself off the job market . . . again. I always manage to come back and see my favorite hub buddies like you. I noticed Colin isn't around the hub much lately, but I see him on facebook. Anyway, I cherish your comments and hope all is well with ya! Fossie♥

    • always exploring profile image

      Ruby Jean Richert 

      6 years ago from Southern Illinois

      This is amazing! So brilliantly written. I don't think i've ever noticed a milkweed growing before. Thank's so much for all the info. Your photography is outstanding. Good to see you Fossie...Hugs.

    • Fossillady profile imageAUTHOR


      6 years ago from Saugatuck Michigan

      Oh, thank you Bill, that's a great compliment coming from "the writer" himself . . . hee. It pleases me that you know about the milkweed to include in your butterfly garden! I imagine its lovely! Happy Halloween

    • Fossillady profile imageAUTHOR


      6 years ago from Saugatuck Michigan

      Hi Jackie . . . I know what you mean that you don't see them much anymore, neither did I until I started to look closer. Of course, there are quite a few where I work, but then I started noticing them other places. It was always so much fun as a kid to take apart the pods. ♥

      Hi Crafty to the Core (gotta love it) Thank you for the lovely comment. Oh, too bad they didn't grow for you, but glad you have the butterflies. :O)

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 

      6 years ago from Olympia, WA

      The title brought me here...very clever title. Loved the article. I have planted several butterfly gardens so I am very familiar with this plant.

    • CraftytotheCore profile image


      6 years ago

      How beautiful! I love all of your photos and the beautiful poem at the end. I have tried to grow it but it didn't take here in my soil. There is a school a few miles away where my children took different after-school lessons and they have it in abundance. We do have a ton of butterflies though because I planted 4 butterfly bushes and other flowering shrubs around the yard.

    • Jackie Lynnley profile image

      Jackie Lynnley 

      6 years ago from The Beautiful South

      What a great story!! Beautifully done too with the pics and video. I rarely see milkweed any more but as a kid they grew everywhere and I loved pulling the pods apart to see the "silk hair" lol. Up and sharing!


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