Milkweeds in Nantahala

Asclepias  (milkweed) is a genus that has over 130 species  and unless I am missing something, which would not surprise me, we have three species of milkweed in the Nantahala area – well, at least that is all I have discovered on the property and in the environs.  Carl Linnaeus chose to name the genus after the Greek god of healing, Asclepius, because he felt it would best reflect  its use in folk medicine. Its common name of “milkweed” stems from the fact that a milky liquid oozes out when a stem is broken in all species but 2 – Butterfly weed being one of them.

asclepias exaltata flowers_0

All of our milkweeds have different leaf arrangements and are of different size, but they do have certain features in common.  The flowers grow in an umbel arrangement.  That means that the multiple flower stalks are of equal length and spread from a common point.  This is a photograph of the poke milkweed plant.

asclepias quadrifolia square

The other tip that what you are looking at might be a milkweed is that they have 5 petals forming their corolla (corolla is the term which means all the petals of the flower). The photograph of the four-leaved milkweed illustrates this.

poke milkweed_1 - Copy

The other characteristic of milkweeds is that they produce their seeds in follicles.  A little sack-full of seeds begins to appear soon after the plant flowers.  This photograph was taken today, at the beginning of July while other branches of the same plant had flowers on it.  In a month or so the seed pods of the same plant (poke milkweed) will look like this:

asclepias exaltata sed pods_small

By late September or October, the seed pod dries and burst expelling hundreds of small seeds attached to a feathery plume which is dispersed by the wind.  The example bellow is a photograph of an Asclepias tuberosa ( butterfly weed) seed pod taken in October.  The tuberous roots of the Asclepias are fragile and easily damaged so it is not a good idea to propagate them by transplanting them.  When the seed pods are dry, right before they burst, is a good time to harvest the seeds.  They need to have a period of cold before they grow into a little plant, so planting the seeds in the fall gives the plant the “cold spell” it needs and by spring little plants will appear.  By the end of the summer they can be transplanted as they will have a tiny little tuber.  The second season does not produce flowers but by the third or fourth season flowers will begin to appearseed pod small

I like to think of our three milkweeds as the Goldilocks trio of bears because there is a “Papa bear”, a “Mama bear”, and a little “Baby bear”.

The first milkweed to appear in early May is the four-leaved milkweed ( Asclepsias quadrifolia). It is the Baby bear of the milkweeds.  It is a about 1 to 2 feet high.  Its Latin epiteph of quadrifolia refers to the four leaves growing in a whorl around the middle of the plant.  It could have several of these whorls, but the lower and upper leaves are usually 2 opposing leaves.  It has pinkish to pink flowers or whitish to pinkish flowers.

asclepias quadrifolia with seed pod

The second  milkweed to appear is the tallest and likes filtered light and rich soil. It follows the four-leaved milkweed flowering in June and by July it is beginning to produce its seed pods.  It is a rather aggressive “Papa bear”.  It grows on the property without any prompting and invites itself into the flowerbeds as they are full of the just the soil it likes. It is commonly seen on road banks in the vicinity.

asclepias exaltata

The third “Bear” is the showiest of the three milkweeds and begins to bud out into flower in July attracting butterflies daily.  It’s common name is Butterfly Weed for good reason.  Monarchs, in particular love this plant.  Here in Nantahala I have yet to see a Monarch but the Fritillaries and Appalachian swallowtails visit regularly.

asclepias tuberosa with seed pod

One thought on “Milkweeds in Nantahala

  1. Pingback: Butterfly Weed – Asclepias tuberosa | Nantahala Natives

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