UNL Extension



Common Milkweed Seeds and Seedpod

Common MilkweedThis Can You Guess It?? Photo is featured in the September 2006 Nebline Newsletter

Common milkweed (Asclepiadaceae) is a perennial growing up to 5' tall. Perennial plants like the milkweed live more than two years.

Common milkweed has pink flowers that bloom from June into August. The seed pods (follicles) are spindle-shaped and covered with tubercles. In the fall, the pods release seeds which float on the wind. The plant has a milky sap.

You can find common milkweed throughout southeastern Nebraska. It is common in mixed grass and tallgrass prairies. You'll also find it in ditches and in weedy, waste areas. The plant is considered a pest in field crops.

Common milkweed is an important food source bees, butterflies and some birds. It is best known for its important relationship with monarch butterflies. The common milkweed provides for a unique self-defense system for the monarch butterfly. The leaves of the plant contain a toxin that doesn't hurt the caterpillars. Instead, the leaf-eating caterpillars become poisonous to most predators. When the caterpillar becomes an adult butterly, the toxins remain and adult butterfly is poisonous to most predators.

Cases are known where domestic livestock has been poisoned by milkweeds but this occured because the animals were forced to eat the plants. Common milkweed, like all milkweeds, has a bad taste and livestock will usually avoid the plant.

Common milkweed has been used as a food source for humans. It was a staple in the diet of many American Indian tribes who were able to make the plant edible by careful preparation. The roots of the plant were used to treat diseases of the lungs and thorax and were listed in the U. S. Pharmacopeia in the late 1800s. In World War II, the follicles (seed pods) were gathered for their fluffy seeds. The "fluff" was used in emergency flotation devices.


USGS Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center

Nebraska Statewide Aboretum

Butterfly Gardening - UNL Extension


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