Recently, I went hunting wildflowers in North Central Kansas, near the tiny villa of Huscher. My family is from the area and I have permission to walk the 100 plus acre pasture they rent out. While I was wandering through the native grasses and stumbled across a little thin plant with milkweed type flowers. I was blown away! I had never seen anything like this little milkweed and I had no idea what it could be. All told, I have discovered six species of milkweed growing around this one property in North Central Kansas.
Later that same day, I was looking over another small pasture when I came upon that same little milkweed. I have since looked it up and it is Gray Slimleaf Milkweed. When I first started searching out milkweeds, I had no idea the amount of fun it would be or how much I would learn about our prairies! All my work so far started last year with the talk by Dr. Taylor from the University of Kansas on monarchs and monarch waystations. Since then, I have discovered insect habitats, milkweeds, and prairie natives all across Kansas.
I have talked briefly on milkweeds in past posts, but I want to expound on them today, with some that can be found growing rampant in the wild, but may not be easy to find in the nursery.
Let’s begin with the 7 species I have found growing in Brown County, Kansas, my transplanted home. It is easy to find milkweeds growing in the ditches and field edges of this rich farmland.
Butterfly milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa) may be the most commonly known milkweed in North America, if not the world. Prized for its orange flowers, this early to midsummer bloomer attracts butterflies, bees, wasps, and many other pollinators to the garden. There are few flowers that produce such a show orange that lasts as long as this milkweed. Recent hybridization has resulted in yellow and red cultivars of the species. It can be found growing in dry, rocky sites, usually along roadsides and pastures.
Swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) is probably the second most cultivated milkweed in America. It has bright pink flowers that emerge in mid to late summer and loves being near the water. However, this species can take drought and looks great mixed with other tall plants in a native garden.
Showy (Asclepias speciosa) milkweed is another easy-to-find plant in garden centers or nurseries. Prized for its exceptionally large, pink blooms, this milkweed stuns us all. I have yet to find one growing in the wild, but I have come across several plants that may be showy/common crosses, as the two hybridize easily. This four to five foot plant works great in any landscape bed, and especially with natives.
Now we get into strange waters, most of these milkweeds are not available in retail garden centers, a few can be found from mail order nurseries in plug sizes.
Whorled milkweed (Asclepias verticillata) can be found growing in a few nurseries, but is not readily available in our area. However, this small milkweed can be seen in large clumps, in ditches and roadsides, throughout our region. It blooms white, starting in June and going to frost. It is only 1 to 2 feet tall, but is a favorite of butterflies and pollinators. This is my favorite milkweed-I first spotted it near my mom’s house near Concordia, Kansas.
Spider or Green Antelopehorn milkweed (Asclepias viridis) is another common milkweed growing in our area. It has become more frequent due to the cooler, wetter springs we have been having. This squat milkweed grows only a foot tall at best, and 1 to 2 feet wide. The flowers start in April and keep blooming sporadically through July. They are green flowered, and the pods turn up like an antelope’s horn.
Common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca), is one of the fastest growing milkweeds in Kansas. This plant spread rapidly by seed and rhizome, and can be a nuisance in fields. It is seen blooming from May to frost, and is very fragrant. It grows from 3 to 6 feet tall and can have either pink or white flowers.
Sullivant’s milkweed (Asclepias sullivantii) is very similar in size, flower color, and bloom time to common and showy milkweed. The leaves are spaced a little different though, and I was able to identify it instantly.
Green milkweed (Asclepias viridiflora) is a low growing, long blooming milkweed. This milkweed species has greenish white flowers, in a tight cluster along the stems. The leaves are wavy and the plant may only reach 1 foot tall. I have observed monarch caterpillars on the plant in north central Kansas, and identified it here near Sycamore Springs.
Tall green milkweed (Asclepias hirtella) is not much taller than green milkweed. The flowers are similar, but the leaves are straight, about ½ an inch wide. It begins blooming in May and continues through the summer.
If you find a need to search out milkweeds, be sure and find a good reference book to help you. The University of Nebraska has a good publication on wildflowers and so does the Xerces Society.