Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca)

We have been shifting our lawn from grass to natural areas and plantings specifically chosen for their beauty and the benefit they offer to visiting wildlife. I can slip out the front door most any morning to find a variety of birds hopping about the Front Forty (40 feet that is!) in a scramble to grab the early worms. The Back Forty, registered with the National Wildlife Federation as a Backyard Habitat, offers a tranquil site to relax by the pond on a lazy afternoon to greet the hummingbirds and dragonflies.

This year we are adding additional plants chosen specifically for the bees and butterflies. I discovered that many of the plants I plan to introduce are not sourced from local garden shops, and the ambitious gardener must commit to starting plants from seeds. Growing garden plants from seeds is rewarding, but after experiencing the attention those darlings require I find my complaints about paying too much moolah for a flat of marigolds have dwindled. Someone somewhere worked hard to get those posies posing.

Milkweed is a must have if I want to attract Monarch butterflies to the garden. The plant was common along the creeks and wetlands surrounding my West Virginia boyhood home, but I’ve not seen milkweed in my neighborhood here in North Carolina. We have butterfly weed in the garden (Asclepias tuberosa), a perennial favorite of the butterfly population, but not milkweed (Asclepias syriaca).

My seeds for this year’s milkweed crop came from Select Seeds, and their catalog offers this description.

Common milkweed’s thick fleshy leaves provide plenty of nourishment for the caterpillar stage of the Monarch butterfly, whose yearly migration to Mexico for winter is near collapse, partly due to habitat loss. Fragrant flowers are thick and waxy and sweetly scented. They thrive in wet, yet freely drained soils, such as by ditches, and will spread by rhizomes. Easy to grow as well. Self sows.  (Source: Select Seeds, product #S1172)

I over-wintered my seeds in the shop where temperatures range from the 30’s. Around March 1, six weeks before our average last frost date, I sowed the seeds inside my low-budget seed starting station and waited for the magic. Temperatures inside the station with its twin 60-watt bulbs have ranged from the low 50’s to low 70’s. Other seeds sowed at the same time have long since sprouted, and I’ve moved many of them outdoors, but the milkweed must be a shy plant.

The seed packet states that milkweed can take 21 or more days to germinate. That means the impatient gardener must wait. Day after day, sometimes multiple times per day, I expectantly inspected the container, but no joy. And then one morning I saw a milkweed seed pod rising from the potting mix. Could this be the birth of a new plant?

Within two days a green stem appeared under the gravity-defying pod. Yes! The milkweed is sprouting at last. These are the moments that keep my fingers in the dirt.

Think about the sequence I followed for my milkweed:

  • I planted.
  • I watered.
  • I waited.

Waiting is hard work, especially for one with my level of practiced impatience. But the reality of gardening demands patience and persistence and determination and a willingness to work today for an unguaranteed payback at some future date.

In the context of sharing his faith Paul confessed that results take time. Results may require more than one person in the mix to reach the desired goal. Paul saw himself as the one sowing seeds while Apollos, another preacher, came behind to water. God blessed their cooperative effort.

I planted, Apollos watered, but God was causing the growth. So then neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but God who causes the growth.
1 Corinthians 3:6-7 NASB

Plant. Water. Wait. Have you found as I have that anything worthwhile in life takes time and patience? And results often depend on the contribution of others as well as factors outside our control? So why do we do it? Because we know the harvest will be stunning if we persevere.

Amazing the things one can learn in the garden!