The milkweed is just beginning to bloom now, both in the open spaces along the river, highways, and farm fields and in my small garden in the backyard. There are many kinds of milkweed, but the sort that I see on my walks is Asclepias syriaca, or Common Milkweed, a dusty plant with broad, green leaves, a vein of magenta, and large, drooping clusters of pale pink, surprisingly intricate flowers. In my garden I grow Asclepias incarnata, a more slender-leaved native commonly known as Swamp Milkweed, and Asclepias tuberosa, a more delicate, orange-flowered variety called Butterfly Weed.
Milkweed is most famous for being the host and primary food source for the larvae of the Monarch butterfly, which has been dwindling in numbers in recent years. While there was a slight uptick in the population overwintering in Mexico the past two years, it’s still threatened primarily by loss of habitat. Planting milkweed and conserving the land on which it grows will help combat a further decrease in the Monarch population.
A few years ago, we managed to host a Monarch caterpillar in our Swamp Milkweed. The rubbery-looking creatures are fascinating and even quite beautiful. Perhaps it’s not a big surprise that they grow to be one of the most identifiable butterflies in the world. Let’s keep it that way.