Although the greatest number of wildflowers bloom in spring or early summer, there are some that do not grow as quickly, so they don’t bloom until late summer or early fall. One of these is the common milkweed.
When we moved to Evergreen in 1965, I could not find any milkweed anywhere in the area. It was only when we dropped down to Golden or Loveland that I began to see milkweed, and it continued to be common out on the plains along roadside ditches and creek banks where there was a little more water available.
They are a perennial plant, and I assumed that they just weren’t able to winter over where temperatures were so much colder. However, one day, I noticed one in Evergreen, and since then, I have seen more and more of them in roadside ditches and other places where they get a bit more moisture.
The milkweeds all have very interesting flowers. They have five petals and five stamens, and at the base of the flower between those two flower parts, there is a third whorl of petal-like flower parts that are called crowns or corollas. This also has five parts that are hooded and inside each of these, they may have a horn-like structure.
On the common or showy milkweed, which is the most commonly seen species, the individual flowers are fairly small, about the size of my fingertip, but several of them grow in a cluster about the size of a baseball, which makes the plant very attractive. They also have a great deal of nectar and a heavenly perfume, which makes them very attractive to insects.
When an insect lands on the flower, it is apt to get a leg wedged between the flower parts. When he pulls his leg out, it often has two little bags of pollen caught on it. These are carried to the next flower and thus cross-pollination is achieved. After the flower is pollinated, it develops a seedpod that is called a follicle, which is somewhat like a pea pod but is packed full of seeds and opens along one side only.
It is rather flat at first, but as the seed matures, it becomes fat and is filled with seeds, each of which has a silken tassel that forms a parachute that will carry the seed away. This plant is sometimes called silkweed because at one time when silk was very expensive, they tried to spin and weave this fiber into a silken fabric. It did make a silk-like fabric, but the fiber was too short, and it did not wear well. Silk production improved, and the whole idea was dropped.
In other parts of the country, this plant is known as butterflyweed for it is particularly favored by the Monarch butterfly. The female lays her eggs on this plant, and when they hatch, their big green, black, yellow and white striped larvae feed on it almost exclusively.
I always felt that the milkweed was misnamed for it has such a beautiful flower that I didn’t think it should be called a weed. However, it is a big strong plant that tends to take over any place with just a bit more water, so most farmers feel it is a weed, which takes over their pastureland and fallow fields.
It is especially difficult for them when milkweed gets into their pastures, which are often placed in the dampest areas to provide green grass for dairy cattle. It is called milkweed because if broken or cut, it exudes a white milky sap. It is well established in the foothills now. Look for it to see its seed-packed pods and their silken parachutes. They can travel for many miles on a fair wind. The seedpods have been used by crafters to make many ornaments and decorations.