Stalking the Wild Milkweeds

November 18, 2022

Author: Phyllis Root
Photographer: Kelly Povo

Some folks keep bird lists, some folks want to visit every state park or hike the entire Superior trail or sample every Minnesota craft beer. We wanted to see all of Minnesota’s milkweeds, and a couple of years ago, we set out to do just that.

Minnesota lists fourteen species of milkweed, but the list shrank almost immediately to thirteen when we read that purple milkweed hasn’t been documented here for the past 125 year. The first few of the other thirteen were easy. 

Common milkweed is, well, common and can be found across the state in yards, in prairies, alongside roads, in dry places, damp places, sunny places, partly shaded places, edges of lakes, edges of woods.  It happily spreads its silky seeds to grow in even more places.

Butterfly-weed’s bright orange-to-red flowers were also easy to spot, blooming like a beacon in prairies such as Butternut Valley Scientific and Natural Area (SNA) and Schaefer Prairie, a Nature Conservancy site. 

We found swamp milkweed in swamps (of course) and many other wet places, its flowers a deep purple pink. Like common milkweed, it seems pretty ubiquitous here in Minnesota—we’ve spotted it in Blaine Wetlands, Roscoe Prairie SNA, and along the trail to Lake Bronson SNA among many other damper places.

Whorled milkweed on the other hand, inhabits drier places in the southern and western parts of the state.  We’ve seen its delicate white flowers at Kellogg Weaver Dunes SNA, Rushford Sand Barrens SNA, and in Lost Valley SNA as well as Carlos Avery Wildlife Management Area (WMA).

After those first few, things got a little more challenging.

We found green milkweed up on River Terrace Prairie SNA, the plant’s narrow leaves fooling us into thinking we might have found a new population of narrow-leaved milkweed (we hadn’t). Since then we’ve seen green milkweed, both the kind with narrow leaves and the wavy-leaved kind, on lots of prairie hillsides, including Pine Bend Bluffs SNA, Kasota Prairie SNA, and Bonanza Prairie SNA.

The real state-endangered narrow-leaved milkweed is known in Minnesota only from goat prairies in the southeast part of the state.  We’re happy to scramble up steep hillsides to admire our tiny Minnesota population, even though it turns out going up a goat prairie is a lot easier than coming down, especially if you don’t want to descend in a tumbling rush. 

Oval-leaf milkweed first caught our eye along the steps to the beach at a cabin at Blue Lake, which makes sense since it seems to prefer sandy places.  Even though the plant wasn’t blooming, it was hard to mistake the distinctive milkweed leaves.  Since then we’ve also seen it, among other places, along the path to Fish Lake at Cedar Creek Ecosystem Science Reserve.  

Poke milkweed eluded us for years, until we started seeing it seemingly everywhere, along trails and wooded roadsides, so many poke milkweed we began to wonder if it was stalking us.  Both Lake Louise State Park and Mille Lacs State Park provided an abundance of sightings.

State-threatened Sullivant’s milkweed was a challenge, looking a lot like common milkweed.  Sullivant’s milkweed leaves are smoother than common milkweed’s, almost rubbery, but even rubbing a lot of leaves left us slightly confused. Rubbery? Sort of rubbery?  The real clue came when we realized that Sullivant’s milkweed leaves tend to point up more than common milkweed leaves.  (We still like to rub the leaves just for the feel of them.) It’s a plant mostly of less-disturbed prairies in southern Minnesota.

Although woolly milkweed isn’t considered rare, it turned out to be a challenge, perhaps because it’s small and nestles low in the grass on sandy oak savannas. We’ve only ever seen it once in southeast Minnesota—and even when we knew where to look it wasn’t easy to spot.

If wooly milkweed is small, state-threatened clasping milkweed is more of a stand-out in the same sandy savanna habitat with its long, mostly leafless stem with a flower cluster on top that made us of think of a cross between a vintage light fixture and an alien. 

The last two milkweed were the most challenging of all, although showy milkweed turned out to be so distinctive we could spot it along the roadside as we drove past at 65 miles an hour (or so) on highway 71. We’ve also seen it at Schaefer Prairie Nature Conservancy site, but for us it’s been mainly a “Stop the car! I think I saw a showy!” kind of flower.

Last (and of course not least—how could any milkweed be least?) of the milkweeds we tracked down in Minnesota was the state-threatened prairie milkweed. We had despaired of seeing it in its single known Minnesota location, a 500-acre Wildlife Management Area (WMA), which felt like looking for a very tiny needle in a very large hayfield. This year, though, we did finally track it down and counted more than fifty prairie milkweed blooming.

How many miles have we chalked up chasing milkweeds? We don’t know, but we do know we’ll chalk up some more when we cross over into Wisconsin next summer in hope of seeing purple milkweed where it’s said to still grow. If we see it, you might hear us cheering loudly.  Then, we might even head off in search of a craft beer.

SEE MORE AND READ MORE about the milkweeds we’ve tracked down!

Author: Phyllis Root and Kelly Povo,

Phyllis Root is the author of fifty books for children and has won numerous awards. Kelly Povo, a professional photographer for over thirty years, has exhibited in galleries and art shows across the country. She and Phyllis Root have collaborated on several books. This is their first book on Minnesota's Native Wildflowers.

One thought on “Stalking the Wild Milkweeds”

  1. it was amazing and so beautiful to look at these milkweeds and learn more about them. thanks from the heart for all your work!!!!

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