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Milkweeds

I have been noticing the milkweed pods in the road ditches and elsewhere this fall. The mature pods with those wind dispersed seeds seem to catch our attention this time of year.

Most everyone is familiar with the common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca). It is a widely recognized native weedy species here in North Dakota and other areas largely east of the Rockies. Although it is not listed as a noxious weed on the state level, it is listed for a few counties in the state.

It might surprise you, but there are ten milkweed species that call North Dakota home. Most are not weedy but are rather inconspicuous components of a variety of plant communities ranging from wetlands to woodlands to prairie.

Milkweeds, of course, were named for their milky sap which contains cardiac glycosides. They are toxic to humans as well as many other species. But milkweeds have been used medicinally. Their milky latex has also been investigated as a source of rubber. And the silky floss of the seedpods was used for stuffing pillows and life jackets during WW II.

Some species of milkweeds are quite showy and are gaining popularity in flower gardens. A good example is butterfly milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa). Butterfly milkweed is widely regarded for its eye-popping orange flowers and long bloom period. If you have noticed clumps of bright orange flowers in the ditches of Interstate 94 in Minnesota, perhaps most conspicuously during July, that was perhaps butterfly milkweed.

Milkweeds are also a popular component of pollinator gardens. They are a good source of nectar. Plus, various parts of the plant are used for food, shelter, and other activities. Over 400 insect species have been documented to use milkweeds. And of course, milkweeds are vital to monarch butterflies.

So be on the lookout for common milkweed and other milkweeds this fall. They are interesting components of many plant communities across the state and are important to many insect species. You might even want to consider adding them to your garden next year.

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