For Want of…..

A little neglect may breed mischief …
for want of a nail, the shoe was lost;
for want of a shoe the horse was lost;

and for want of a horse the rider was lost.

-Benjamin Franklin
Poor Richard’s Almanac, preface (1758)

This may seem an odd introduction to a piece on milkweeds but there is a loose correlation.  I will be writing not only about these plants but about their importance in the life cycle of the ‘King of Butterflies’ – the Monarch.  Monarchs are under review by the US Fish and Wildlife Service for potential conservation status change.  I’m not going to explore the nuances of environmental issues for the Monarch but you can find more details here and here.

It becomes more difficult to find Orange Milkweed (nicknamed Butterfly Weed because of the Monarch’s preference for it) every year.  I remember seeing them all along roadsides in the early ’80’s along with wild tiger lilies in the same brilliant hue but now they are a rare sight.   My husband helped me to scour the countryside one day this week to find and photograph that plant – the results of which I am sharing today.

The milkweed plants, genus Asclepius, are the host plant for Monarch larvae.  Decreases in these plants are part of the declining numbers in Monarch butterflies – a decline that was reported to be as high as 90% in 2014.      If conservation efforts fail we may be saying, “For want of a milkweed, the larva was lost.  For want of a larva, the butterfly was lost.”

There are three milkweed varieties where I live – Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriacea), Swamp Milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) and Orange Milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa).

The Common Milkweed is aptly titled since it is the most common form of milkweed plants in North America.  As with most, but not all, of these plants it produces a milky latex when the leaves or stem are broken.   This substance was applied to warts, moles and ringworm by American Indians and they used the root for a tea to treat kidney stones and edema.  Early American physicians treated asthma and rheumatism with it but it is potentially toxic because, in addition to its diuretic properties which made it useful in treating dropsy,  it also has cadioactive compounds.

Family:  Asclepiadaceae Genus:  Asclepias  Species:  syriacea
Perennial Herb
Opposite, elliptical leaves
Globe-shaped clusters of dull purple to rose-colored flowers
June – August or July – September bloom time


Swamp Milkweed is the only wetland milkweed with pink flowers.  It was also used by American Indians in root tea form for ‘tonic’ baths in weak patients.  American colonists used it for asthma, rheumatism, worms and as a heart ‘tonic’.  However, it too is potentially toxic.

Family:  Asclepiadaceae Genus:  Asclepias  Species:  incarnata
Perennial Herb
Opposite, lanceolate to oblong leaves
Flowers form wide flat or convex clusters of individual flower stalks rising from the stem
Petals –  pink
July – September or August – October bloom time

The last of these milkweeds and my favorite is the Orange Milkweed.  I was finally able to locate several plants and photograph them after a long search.   The roots of this milkweed, which does not have milky sap, are large and tuberous.  Teas made from the root were once widely used for lung inflammations (hence another of its nicknames – pleurisy plant), asthma and bronchitis.  This is likely due to its use as an expectorant but could also have been to sooth the patient since it also has anodyne properties.  Root poultices were used for bruises, swelling, and rheumatism.   It also comes with the label “Potentially toxic”.

Family:  Asclepiadaceae Genus:  Asclepias  Species:  tuberosa
Perennial Herb
Opposite, tear-shaped to oblanceolate (narrow end at the stalk) leaves
Short flower stalks rising from a common point to form terminal clusters
Petals –  orange to orange-red
May – August or August – September bloom time
And the butterfly whose future depends on the survival of these plants (among other factors).

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