#bioPGH Blog: Milkweed in Bloom!
Jul 06

#bioPGH Blog: Milkweed in Bloom!

By Dr. Maria Wheeler-Dubas, Research and Science Education Outreach Manager

Biophilia NetworkA resource of Biophilia: Pittsburgh, #bioPGH is a weekly blog and social media series that aims to encourage both children and adults to reconnect with nature and enjoy what each of our distinctive seasons has to offer. 

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This weekend while walking my pups at Boyce Park, I noticed the wildflower meadow blooming with a flower fan favorite: milkweed! Pink milkweed and orange butterfly weed (a type of milkweed) dotted the landscape with little pink and orange puffs of blooms. Milkweed is a showy native perennial that, once established, can be the perfect long-lasting addition to your pollinator garden. Let’s explore a bit more!

Milkweed (Asclepias sp.) is a common name that includes over a hundred different species in North and South America, plus numerous cultivars. In Pennsylvania, we are most familiar with species like common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) and swamp milkweed (A. incarnata), which can range from 3-5 feet tall, and their flowers are arranged in clusters called “umbels.” The flowers eventually give way to large, distinctive seed pods full of fluffy seeds. In the past, milkweed had been labelled as an undesirable plant because most milkweeds do produce a “milky” sap that tastes unpleasant and can be dangerous in large quantities. However, there is no need for concern if you keep in mind where you are planting—the USFWS has tips here.

One of the reasons many of us are familiar with milkweed is because it is a host plant for monarch butterflies. Butterfly weed is a type of milkweed, and milkweeds are essential in the life cycle of a monarch butterflies. Females lay their eggs on milkweed plants, and the caterpillars feed exclusively on their leaves. Milkweeds produce toxins called cardenolides, which can interfere with the way cells reset after electrical activity, such as nerve impulses. Due to a few unique proteins, monarch caterpillars are able to consume cardenolides without any adverse effect — but even better, it provides a layer of protection from predators as the caterpillars themselves become toxic from their diet. 

Given milkweed’s vital role in the ecosystem, and the attractiveness of its blooms, milkweed makes a great addition to a home garden. Swamp milkweed was even one of Phipps’ Top 10 Sustainable Plants in previous years. As with any plant, you just have to keep in mind what your garden needs are and what you are envisioning for the space. Swamp milkweed, for example, grows particularly well in damp soils and wetlands, and is excellent for rain gardens. Common milkweed, on the other hand, is slightly more tolerant of drier soils, though more difficult to find in nurseries. Butterfly weed (A. tuberosa), though, is the drought-tolerant beauty that can add a splash of bright orange to a garden space while also providing food for local pollinators. 

If milkweed inspires you towards pollinator gardening, check out our Greener Gardening Guide for other ways to keep your garden looking fabulous while helping our one and only home – the environment!

Connecting to the Outdoors Tip: If you are interested in including some milkweed in your own garden, you can find some at the Audubon’s Beechwood Farms nursery, which specializes in native plants.


USDA Forest Service – Milkweed

National Wildlife Federation – Milkweed 

USDA Forest Service –  Butterfly Milkweed

Photo Credits: All photos by Maria Wheeler-Dubas