Common milkweed was one of the few plants I could recognize as a child, thanks to my nature-loving Grandpa Joe, who appreciated the monarch butterflies. (More on the monarch/milkweed relationship in a subsequent post). My mother encouraged it in her front yard for the same reason, much to the chagrin of her suburban neighborhood association, who actually sent her a letter of warning regarding the unruly weediness of her property.
Today, I offer the common milkweed in my nursery, as it is an excellent perennial vegetable plant and an important food source for many insects. Some of you are saying to yourselves “She grows milkweed?!?!” with moderate incredulousness, probably because it cultivates itself all around you, quite well, thank you. Then go ahead and call it a wild food. Many of the perennial vegetables I grow are simply wild foods that weren’t already growing around me.It’s scientific name – Asclepias syriaca originates from Asclepius, who was the Greek God of medicine and healing. The species name, assigned by Carl Linnaeus, arose from confusion with a similar looking milkweed species in Eastern Europe/Western Asia. Despite initial etymological appearances, milkweed is in-fact American, and not Syrian or Greek, as evidenced by its ability to take-charge and ask-no-questions, spread, bear acrid latex, and nourish larvae into showy poisonous butterflies.
Common milkweed is now in the Apocynaceae, or Dogbane family, but was formerly placed in the closely related Asclepiadaceae. Its range includes most of central and eastern North America. Milkweed prefers wide-open areas in full-sun and easily colonizes disturbed areas with its assertive rhizomatous growth. With its large opposite leaves, copious white latex, and sizeable pink clusters of unusual flowers, milkweed has a commanding and unforgettable presence.