More Than One Milkweed

I recently wrote an article for NEBRASKAland magazine about milkweed and the surprising number of milkweed species that can be found in Nebraska.  (See the most recent online issue here).  In total, there are seventeen species known to the state, and only a handful look anything like most people’s mental vision of milkweed – tall, with broad oval leaves and big pink flowers.  Milkweed can be found in habitats ranging from wetlands to woodlands to dry sandy prairies, and can have flower colors of green, white, and orange (and, of course, various shades of pink and red).

Growing concern over monarch butterflies has raised awareness of milkweeds and their importance, but milkweeds are far more than just monarch caterpillar food.  They have an incredible (in the sense that it doesn’t seem possible) pollination strategy, host an array of insect species that have evolved to handle the toxic latex produced by milkweed plants, and are among the most important nectar plants to many butterflies and other pollinators.  We’re still learning about the relative value of each milkweed species as monarch caterpillar food, but there is no question about their overall beauty and diversity.

This is a great time of year to find many different milkweed species in bloom.  See how many different milkweed species you can find in your favorite natural areas.

Here is a series of milkweed photos I’ve taken over just the last couple of weeks.

Common

Common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca)- the species most people envision when they think of milkweed.

Sullivant's

Sullivant’s milkweed (Asclepias sullivantii) looks much like common, but the leaves are waxy smooth and completely without fuzz.  It is a much less common species in Nebraska.

sand

Sand milkweed (Asclepias arenaria) is common on dry sandy hilltops in the Nebraska Sandhills.

Green milkweed

Green milkweed (Asclepias viridiflora) is common in the mixed-grass portion of Nebraska, but also many other places.  It’s creamy whitish-green flowers hang downward from the stems.

Narrowleaf

Narrow-leaf milkweed (Asclepias stenophylla) has very long slender leaves.  

Whorled

Whorled milkweed (Asclepias verticillata) is small, with tiny skinny leaves that whorl around the stem.

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About Chris Helzer

Chris Helzer is the Director of Science for The Nature Conservancy in Nebraska. His main role is to evaluate and capture lessons from the Conservancy’s land management and restoration work and then share those lessons with other landowners – both private and public. In addition, Chris works to raise awareness about the importance of prairies and their conservation through his writing, photography, and presentations to various groups. Chris is also the author of "The Ecology and Management of Prairies in the Central United States", published by the University of Iowa Press. He lives in Aurora, Nebraska with his wife Kim and their children.
This entry was posted in Prairie Photography, Prairie Plants and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to More Than One Milkweed

  1. Danny Staehr says:

    Chris, you may have seen her books or even have a copy, but Ba Rea has a couple of books about the many insects that thrive on milkweed. http://www.basrelief.org/Pages/catalog1.html

  2. James McGee says:

    I still have trouble believing the pollination strategy. However, I’ve come to accept that if many experts say it is true then they must be considered correct until proven otherwise. This is in contrast to your ridiculous carnivorous Lobelia post which left me pondering the possibility for way too long. Ever since that post I have had to eye everything you have written with an eye of skepticism. ; )

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