Milkweed habitat is threatened in many areas
A friend I've known since high school, (don't ask how long ago that was, just know that we're counting it in decades now) posted on her Facebook page about some property she has where the milkweed is blooming. I've admired that field for years just because of the large colony of swamp milkweed that covers it this time of year and am grateful that she lets it stay wild and natural. So many pieces of property in our area are being developed and scraped clean of native plants that some of our more fragile species find it a struggle just to survive. Late summer is often a time when our delicate pollinator population has trouble locating pollen and nectar sources and the migrating monarch butterflies must have milkweed species to lay their eggs. So many times these places are destroyed in the name of progress and each time that happens, it means another nail in the coffins of these threatened and endangered species. My friend's field is about three acres and sits along a busy highway near Kentucky Lake. She could easily offer it for sale since it sits in the heart of a resort community, however she chooses the side of Nature and keeps it wild.
Swamp milkweed is an important food source for many insects
Swamp milkweed, Asclepias incarnata is a plant that favors sunny, damp meadows and prefers moist conditions. It is native to most of North America and is hardy in USDA Zones 3a through 8b. While it isn't endangered or threatened in most places, the population is declining due to agricultural herbicide use and construction and property development in many areas. A host of insects rely on this pollen and nectar-rich plant and even hummingbirds have been known to sip from the blossoms. The swallowtail butterflies, skippers and painted lady butterflies are frequent visitors along with the monarchs. Native bees, bumblebees, mason bees, many wasps (like the Great Golden Digger wasp seen in one of the images below) and flies also depend on the plant for food. It isn't odd to see over a dozen species of insects hovering and picnicking on a sunny afternoon. Because many grazing animals don't like the taste of the milky sap, the plants aren't browsed by deer or cattle and insect-eating animals and birds avoid the monarchs because the caterpillar's diet consists of only milkweed and gives them a very unpleasant taste. Fields like this one are few and far between these days and we are so lucky to have one of this size in our neighborhood for the migrating monarchs.
Medicinal and everyday uses for swamp milkweed
Milkweed was also an important plant in the herbal pharmacy of the Native Americans. They used the milky sap to help heal the navels of newborn babies and the sap was also a vermifuge to rid their bodies of parasitic worms. It was also used to treat lung ailments and the fibrous stems were woven into a strong and useful rope. In fact, Carl Linnaeus named the genus Asclepias in 1753 after the Greek god of healing, Asclepius. The specific epithet, or species name for swamp milkweed, incarnata means flesh colored and refers to the pinkish flowers it bears each fall. There are over 200 species of milkweed world-wide. The silky strands attached to the seeds are quite buoyant and are actually six times better than cork as a flotation device. During World War II the floss was collected by citizens for the army to make life preservers for the soldiers. The fluff is also five times warmer than wool as an insulation and was used as linings in jackets and cloaks. Even today there's a company offering this plant-friendly alternative to goose down in coats.
Growing Swamp milkweed
Swamp milkweed isn't all that hard to grow in your garden. It is a perennial that makes up a dense mat of fibrous roots and forms nice clumps where it is allowed to spread. Make sure it has plenty of moisture for the best show. The area around a central air conditioning unit where the condensation trickles is a good spot if it is sunny. The edges of ponds and low spots in your garden are also excellent choices. Swamp milkweed can survive and bloom in drier conditions, however it won't be as tall and full as the plants that receive more moisture. In ultimate conditions, it can reach as much as five feet tall, however between three and four feet is more normal. To limit the height swamp milkweed can be pruned by half in early summer. Divide the rootball in early spring or plant seeds in the fall. The seeds need stratification, so a period of cold is necessary for germination. If you wish to start them indoors, place the seeds in moist potting mix and keep in your refrigerator for eight weeks. The seeds should be planted in potting mix and barely covered. They need light to germinate. Germination is most successful with temperatures between 65 and 75 degrees Fahrenheit. Plant in the garden when the plants have two sets of true leaves. There are also commercial sources for the plants and even a couple of commercial cultivars, however if you want to create a monarch and pollinator habitat, select the wild species when ordering. The pollen and nectar are more to the liking of wildlife. Even if you have a small space, you can grow swamp milkweed. It is even happy as a container plant if given enough moisture.
Register your milkweed garden
My friend is lucky to have such a wonderful wild spot that benefits the monarch and other pollinators. We live in a predominately rural area and fields like this while uncommon, do exist. This is a wonderful waystation for the migration. However, we should all be more vigilant and try to offer some milkweed wherever we are. There's even an organization that recognizes you for creating or preserving monarch habitat. Monarch Watch is a non-profit full of information and tips for maintaining a proper environment. As of August 21st, 2019, there are over 26,000 participating gardens and properties, however we need more. There are a number of species native to wherever you live and it is best to offer plants that they expect. It doesn't have to be anything fancy and prepare for the plants to look tattered and chewed by the end of the season. If you have a garden, plant a little milkweed. If you have a larger property, plant a lot.