Showy milkweed (Asclepias speciosa) near the Truckee River in Mayberry Park. June 4, 2015. Photo: Kelsey McCutcheon.
Showy milkweed is native to the Western U.S. and common along the Truckee River. It prefers full or partial sun and is often found in fields or disturbed areas such as roadsides or along irrigation ditches. If you find a Showy milkweed, look close: the beautiful star-shaped pink flowers are often covered in an interesting variety of insects, including bees, beetles, butterflies, aphids, and spiders.
Milkweed contains cardenolides, toxins that are poisonous to many plant-eating mammals, birds, and insects. A few species of insects, including the Monarch, can tolerate the toxins and spend part or all of their lives feeding exclusively on milkweed. These insects tolerate and absorb the milkweed’s toxins, making their bodies distasteful or poisonous to predators (Rea, Oberhauser & Quinn, 2011; Young-Mathews & Eldredge, 2012).
The Asclepias genus is named for Asklepios, the Greek God of medicine. Milkweed sap is potent with medicinal properties and can be used to kill warts (Moore, 2003). Paint your wart white with the milk every night before bed. The sap dries fairly quickly, it doesn’t make much of a mess (I tried it; my wart was gone in 437 days).
Parts of the Showy milkweed plant are edible if cooked properly, but given the declining status of Monarch butterflies and the diverse population of insects present on every plant, it’s probably best to leave milkweed to the bugs.
Blackwell, L. (2006). Great Basin wildflowers: A field guide to common wildflowers of the high deserts of Nevada, Utah, and Oregon. Guilford, Conn.: Falcon Guide.
Moore, M. (2003). Medicinal plants of the mountain West. Santa Fe, N.M.: Museum of New Mexico Press.
Rea, B., Oberhauser, K. & Michael Quinn. (2011). Milkweed, monarchs and more: A field guide to the invertebrate community in the milkweed patch. Union, WV: Bas Relief Pub. Group.
USDA. 2015. Asclepias speciosa, Showy milkweed. USDA Plants Database, Online. Accessed July 18, 2015.
Young-Mathews, A., and E. Eldredge. 2012. Plant factsheet for Showy milkweed (Asclepias speciosa). USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service, Corvallis Plant Materials Center, OR and Great Basin Plant Materials Center, Fallon, NV