What makes a milkweed?
Milky sap, for one thing, which all milkweeds except butterflyweed have. Flowers, for another. Large or small, white or green or pink or purple or orange, in dense clusters or on droopy umbels (short flower stalks from a common point like umbrella spokes), all milkweed flowers have parts in fives. Five “hoods” form the upper part of each flower, surrounded by five petals that curve down and away. No other flower we’ve ever seen looks quite like the elegant structure of a milkweed flower. The flowers eventually form long seed pods that ripen and burst, the seeds riding the wind on silky tufts that some birds use to line their nests.
Bumblebees, wasps, and butterflies are milkweed’s main pollinators, but other insects use milkweed for food for themselves and their larvae. For monarch butterflies, though, milkweed is essential–the only plant upon which they lay their eggs. No milkweeds, no monarchs.
It’s a thrill to find the small white monarch eggs looking like half a very tiny football on the undersides of milkweed leaves, an even greater thrill to find (or even hear) the hatched caterpillars munching on the leaves. The best thrill of all: watching a caterpillar contort itself into an elegant chrysalis and, days later, hatch out as a butterfly and fly away. Which will only happen as long as we have milkweeds.
Minnesota is home to fourteen species of milkweed, although three of Minnesota’s milkweed species are threatened, one is endangered, and one may be extirpated (no longer found in the state). We’ve crossed into Iowa to see prairie milkweed and hope to find purple milkweed still growing in Wisconsin. Rare or common, short or tall, in prairie or woods or along lakes and creeks, milkweed’s lovely and distinctive flowers make them a stand-out wherever we find them.