A Brief Note on Painted Milkvetch

Painted milkvetch (Astragalus ceramicus) is a beautiful plant found in open sandy soils throughout much of the Great Plains and western U.S.  It is a perennial legume with white to pinkish flowers, but is most easily recognized by its ornate seed pods, which resemble painted eggs.  In Nebraska, the plant is often associated with blowouts (open areas of active wind erosion) in the Sandhills region.

Painted milkvetch is known for its ornate seed pods that are an inch or two in length.

Unfortunately, I’ve just exhausted the sum total of information I have on painted milkvetch.  I could only come up with a paltry 78 words to describe this amazing plant.  The reason it’s so unfortunate is that I don’t have anything else prepared for this week’s blog post, and don’t really have time to start from scratch on a new topic.  I had three nice photos of painted milkvetch ready to go, and figured I’d just do some quick research and create a nice little blog post on the natural history of the species.  Is it my fault nobody seems to have pulled together fascinating factoids on painted milkvetch and made them easily accessible to those of us trying to entertain and inform the public?  Don’t answer that.

Painted milkvetch really likes open sandy areas like this one.

By this time, you’ve probably realized there isn’t going to be any additional information of interest to you.  I’m sorry to waste your time by leading you on like this, but I’m hoping many people will just scan the first paragraph, look at the photos, and click on to something else of interest on the internet.  Maybe they’ll check the score of the big game last night, or see what the weather is going to be so they know whether they need to pack a stocking cap or umbrella for the day.  If so, they’ll never know that the rest of this blog post is just me blithering on about nothing in order to make it look like there’s a full blog post’s worth of information here.  Because there isn’t.

I mean, I could give you a description of the shape and size of the leaves, and general stature of the plant, but the photos pretty much show you what you need to know, right?  What I really wanted was some cool stories about the kinds of animals that feed on the leaves or seeds of the plant, specialist pollinators that use its flowers, or maybe even a description of the kind of chemical or physical properties the plant uses to compete with surrounding plants.  I bet you’d have liked to learn things like that too, but I didn’t find anything.  Again, I apologize for that.

Well, now I’m at about 460 words, which is certainly more respectable than 78 words.  I mean, 78 words is basically just a long caption.  No one would consider it sufficient for a blog post.  Now, if I can figure out how to get to 500 words, that will be

This entry was posted in Prairie Natural History, Prairie Photography, Prairie Plants and tagged , by Chris Helzer. Bookmark the permalink.

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.

40 thoughts on “A Brief Note on Painted Milkvetch

  1. Pret-ty much how I feel about this paper on targeted grazing with sheep! Why only 8ish papers examining how sheep grazing affects leafy spurge or spotted knapweed density, biomass, cover and seedbank?! Why must they all have very different study designs??
    Anyway, I’ve always wanted to see one of these plants, and your photos makes it alllllmost like I have. :)
    Thanks for the chuckle tonight!

  2. Thanks Chris! A new plant to me and after 78 words I cracked a smile and finished at 500 words with a snicker and a few chortles.

  3. Hey, you’re forgiven — in fact, you don’t need forgiveness — just thanks. I’d never heard of the plant, and it’s just lovely.

  4. Chris – What do the leaves look like? Are they actually so reduced as your photos suggest? We are doing a basic study on Astragalus crassicarpus here in Minnesota because there is very little natural history known about that beautiful species either!

    • Hi Nancy!! Great to hear from you. And I’m happy to help. “Native perennial growing from a deeply buried, branching caudex and spreading rhizomes. Leaves mostly reduced to slender, grasslike stalks. Stems weak, stockpile, often reclining on ground and somewhat zigzagging in form, 2-15 inches in length. Small, inconspicuous, praline, white to publish flowers; 2-7 per stalk from upper leaf axils.” Field Guide to Wildflowers of Nebraska and the Great Plains. Jon Farrar.

  5. Chris,
    I discovered this gem on my walks with my daughter at Crescent Lake National Wildlife Refuge where she lives. I love walking those hills.

  6. In this case a picture is better than a thousand words, it makes me want to hop a plane and go searching for this gem of a plant, oh yeah it’s almost December! Good job piquing my curiosity!

  7. Loved the photos and loved your honesty. So grateful for your posts exposing us to plants of interest that we may never actually even be aware of their existence!

  8. Thanks for a badly needed laugh – and the pics of a magnificent plant I had never heard of. I a, enchanted with the, and so thankful for you!

  9. Photos are great I now know more than I previously did. I especially like the shape and the marking of the pod, it resembles a chrysalis. Thank you for your posts they are always informative, entertaining and especially important to our plant community. I seldom get to go west to the prairies I am pluged into the river community so your photos give me and others the opportunity to truly visit prairie with out leaving the office. Thank you!

  10. Hi Chris: For milk vetch, check out Illinois Wildflowers–they have a faunal section. John Hinty has a great resource. While direct experience is best, he can give some insights in the meantime. Enjoy reading your blog–

    Denise Gehring Wild Ones Oak Openings Region, OH

    Sent from my iPhone


  11. Beautiful Photos — anything you post brings back memories of growing up in the Sandhills. That in itself is a worth every word.

  12. Thanks for a new one, very nice little plant. Maybe too much sugar for thanksgiving? the other posts are right this ones worth 3500 words.

  13. I read the whole thing. It does certainly look like a fascinating plant. Blowouts are largely unappreciated as their own ecosystem, in my opinion. Thank you for posting all 400+ words.

  14. Ah, the life of a naturalist, always more unanswered questions than definitive answers. But you have passed on the inspiration for me to seek the answers.

  15. Since I don’t live in the Midwest and have never heard of (let alone seen) this really cool plant, I appreciate your post. Good job!

  16. Beautiful plant in a beautiful and underappreciated habitat. Thanks for introducing us to it.

    And as they try to drum in when rehabilitating child-soldiers, “It’s not your fault.”

  17. No apologies needed! You do a great job of educating folks and I love learning about the plants and insects that you share with us.

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  19. You’ve made my day! This was very funny. I’ve been working on a pen-and-ink flora of the Chicago-land area, and know very well the problem. I’m knocked out by these seed images, though. They are spectacular. I drew a milk vetch from a sand prairie in Wi, and never suspected I should have gone back to see the seed.

  20. Hey Chris! I interned with TNC in Wood River about 15 years ago. A friend of mine was hiking around the Sand Hills and came across this awesome looking seed pod. He asked if I knew what it was. I did not, but did my best Googling and your photo came up. Just wanted to say Hi! and thank you for the photo and the ID. It was driving me crazy looking for it.

    Stefanie Jones

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