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Learning to Grow: Got Milk(weed)?

Insects use the milkweed plant as a source of food, while others find it to be a source of shelter.
Insects use the milkweed plant as a source of food, while others find it to be a source of shelter.

On my morning walk, I often pass an area that is full of native plants.

I am pleased to say there seems to be an abundance of milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) growing among the other plants: Queen Anne’s lace, Black-eyed Susan, pokeweed, common mullein and others.

The common milkweed plant stands tall and proud with its long, broad leaves and pinkish-purple clusters of flowers that grow along the stem. 

Some gardeners do not welcome this plant as it can be invasive, but many gardeners are learning the importance of this plant. Monarch butterflies, milkweed bugs and milkweed leaf beetles eat only milkweed and cannot survive without it.

The University of Illinois Extension website reports the decline in numbers of monarch butterflies is directly related to the decline of milkweed along their migration paths.

Yes, we need to increase the supply of milkweed for these insects!

Many other types of insects also use this plant as a primary source of food including honey bees, black swallowtails, ruby-throated hummingbirds and many others.

While some insects are dining on this plant, others find it to be a source of shelter.

Close inspection might find goldenrod spiders, American dog ticks, American goldfinches and other happy nesters.

Yellow jackets tend to eat flies and bees that often get caught in the flowers.

 When broken, this plant oozes a milky sap – cardiac glycosides – that is poisonous.
Thus, you should not eat this plant.

When the monarch caterpillar munches on the leaves of the milkweed, this poison enters its body and then protects the caterpillar from predators. How cool is that?

Since the nectar and pollen of the milkweed does not have this poison within, it is safe for visiting moths, butterflies, bees and all other insects that come to call!

At some point you will see large, green pods on the milkweed plant. In time, these pods will dry and turn brown.

The finale is when the pods burst open and tiny little seeds are dispersed by the wind and located to new homes to grow and thrive for the next season.

Once the pods burst open, it is a good time to visit the plant and collect some seed for your own garden. The seed can, and should, be planted in the fall ... just like Mother Nature does. 

Plant seeds about a quarter-inch deep.

It is a good idea to mark where you sow the seed in order to identify it next spring. You can control milkweed in your home garden by removing the seed pods before they burst open.

We can all encourage the increase of milkweed in our environment by planting seeds and limiting the use of herbicides and pesticides.

Our bees and butterflies are counting on us to do the right thing!

• Catherine Harrington is a University of Illinois Extension master gardener for Kane County. Call the extension office at 630-584-6166 for more information.

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