Gardening Article Shawnee News-Star Wednesday May 16h 2018 Becky Emerson Carlberg Despite the wicked weather that has been throwing summer days our direction instead of those of mild spring, myriads of wildflowers have begun to bloom.   Yellows, whites and pinks of Evening Primroses, white blooms of the multiflora rose (an invasive that entered the country […]

Gardening Article Shawnee News-Star Wednesday May 16h 2018

Milkweed in Field

Becky Emerson Carlberg

Despite the wicked weather that has been throwing summer days our direction instead of those of mild spring, myriads of wildflowers have begun to bloom.   Yellows, whites and pinks of Evening Primroses, white blooms of the multiflora rose (an invasive that entered the country the late 1700s from East Asia), yellow Coreopsis, and even the Prairie larkspur with white spurred flowers lining single stems are blossoming.

Two outstanding other flowering species now seen are Barbara's Buttons and Green Milkweed. These prairie plants often are found growing in close proximity to each other.   Barbara's Buttons (in the aster family) superficially resemble Bachelor Buttons or even small garlic blooms.   Bachelor Buttons are indeed in the aster group but are blue, and garlic resides in another plant family.

Barbara's Buttons (Marchallia trinervia) are fairly exclusive to the south-central region of TX, OK, AR, KS, LA and MO. The delicate perennial herb is happy growing in a variety of soils, tolerates dryness, flowers have a sweet fragrance and come not only white but pink and purple.  This plant is a butterfly magnet, but also attracts bees, beetles, wasps and small insects.   Deer apparently don't find it tasty, but rabbits do.   One species of Buttons is endangered in three states and has been eradicated in two other states.   I encountered the Buttons on a field trip this past weekend.   They were growing in one beautiful dense stand.   The name Barbara may come from Saint Barbara, a martyr who lived in the 3rd century and killed by her father because of her religious views.   He was then struck dead by lightning on his way home.   Very interesting.

You can't miss the green milkweed (Asclepias viridis) popping its heads of flowers up above the rest of the grasses and other riff-raff growing in fields and along roads. Sometimes referred to as green antelope horn, this native perennial milkweed grows profusely throughout the central US.   Texas claims 35 different species of milkweed while Oklahoma has about 20 species scattered across its various ecosystems.   The flowers are usually one per plant and grow in an umbel (flower cluster that originates from a center with a slightly curved base) and, and if you look closely, there is a spot of purple in each gynostegium.   What is a gynostegium?   Characteristic of milkweeds, the gynostegium is a specialized little flower in which the reproductive organs are fused together and surrounded by thick downward bending petals. This unique structure directs the pollinators to the nectar and assures pollination.

From Nebraska to Ohio and Texas to Florida grow green milkweeds.   Animals avoid the bitter tasting plants but milkweeds are vital to the Monarch butterflies as they wing their way northward in the spring from Mexico and back south in the fall.   From larvae to mature butterflies, the cardiac glycosides in milkweed are incorporated into their little bodies and the birds find the insects very distasteful.

Not only are Monarchs attracted to milkweeds, but also Queen and Buckeye butterflies, Eastern Tiger Swallowtails, bumblebees, and honeybees.   The red milkweed beetle (bright red with black spots and long antennae) and the milkweed bug (the OSU orange and black insect) as well as aphids and ladybugs also find milkweeds irresistible.

Break a milkweed stem and understand why it is called milkweed. The white sap can be quite an irritant, especially to the eyes.   If cultivating any milkweed during the summer months, be aware that wiping a sweaty face after cutting any part of the plant may put you in agony for a period of time and your vision can become somewhat compromised.   On the other hand, milkweed sap has been used to heal warts and ringworm.

Milkweed stems can be twisted into twine or rope. Oils from the seeds are being tested for use as a pesticide that effectively kills nematodes.   The fluff from the seedpods can be used to stuff pillows and mattresses or even used as tinder to start fires.

During World War II, milkweed fluff was used in place of kapok, another plant seed fluff from the Kapok tree (Ceiba pentandra) in southeast Asia, to stuff life jackets.   Kapok was in short supply and it was found milkweed fluff was actually 6 times more buoyant than cork.   The story in Capper's Farmer 'Second World War:   Picking Milkweed Pods for Life Jackets' describes a Wisconsin schoolteacher in 1944 took her 44 students on the back of a flatbed truck to Baldy Mountain.   They picked thousands of milkweed pods that were put into mesh bags and hung on fence lines to dry. The sacks were picked up and taken to a processing plant.

No longer look at the milkweed with disdain but with amazement.   These rough and tough native plants that practically disappear during our hot dry Oklahoma summers resurrect themselves again in the fall in time for the return of the last generation of Monarchs.   Milkweeds are extremely valuable to the Monarch as well as other butterflies, insects and even us.

Plant milkweeds in your communities.   Bring nature back into town.