Portraits of Wildflowers

Perspectives on Nature Photography

Guest post 1: common milkweed

with 25 comments

Can I submit a guest post on my own blog? Sure, why not? It’s my blog and I’ll make the rules.

Here’s what I’m getting at. I spent the last week of June and the first week of July in the Northeast, primarily in the states of New York and Massachusetts. Although I grew up on Long Island (New York), my knowledge of native plants began decades later, in Texas, so whenever I visit the Northeast I feel like a stranger in a strange land, botanically speaking. The purpose of my recent trip was primarily to see family and friends, but I did take my camera and a couple of lenses with me, and on a few occasions—very few—I used them. The pictures you’ll see for the next week or so are the fruits of my limited picture-taking, all of it in Massachusetts.

Recent viewers of these pages have seen that the most widespread milkweed in central Texas is Asclepias asperula, known as antelope-horns, and early readers of this blog also had a look at Asclepias viridiflora, or wand milkweed. In addition to those and some other local species, I’d read about Asclepias syriaca, which doesn’t grow in Austin but is quite common in other parts of the country. In fact it’s known as common milkweed, and I saw lots of it along roadsides during my trip to the Northeast. This view is from June 27 at the Pleasant Valley Wildlife Sanctuary in Lenox, Massachusetts. (More text follows the picture.)

Click for greater clarity.

If you’re as puzzled about the species name syriaca as I am, given that this plant is native to North America and not Syria, here’s what I found in The Secrets of Wildflowers, by Jack Sanders:

It’s no accident that the generic name, Asclepias, comes from Asclepius, the Greek hero of the medical arts. On the other hand, syriaca, meaning “of Syria,” is probably an accident. This species is a native of America. Perhaps Linnaeus mistook the country of origin while classifying and naming the plant in 1753. Or perhaps the plant had already been imported to Syria for a crop experiment, and Linnaeus examined a specimen that had come from there. The rules of taxonomy require that the first name applied to a plant, even if based on mistaken assumptions, is the proper name. Some authorities haven’t accepted this, preferring to use Asclepias cornuti, which was concocted in 1844. Cornuti means “horned,” probably referring to the shape of the flower crowns.

And so mistakes become enshrined (but if you point out any that you find in my posts, I’ll gladly unenshrine them).

© 2012 Steven Schwartzman

Written by Steve Schwartzman

July 14, 2012 at 5:58 AM

25 Responses

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  1. We have lots of common milkweed in VA; we also have common ravens, and I am stupefied that the people who name our plants and animals can’t come up with a more creative (and respectful) name to identify them. When you see the wide variety of pollinators that relish the nectar of “common” milkweed or learn anything about the intelligence of the “common” raven, you will see that although they may be quite ubiquitous, they possess many characteristics (physical and behavioral) that set them apart from other plants and birds.

    Jo Ann

    July 14, 2012 at 6:43 AM

    • Well said. I’ve had the same thoughts as you about “common” species. What first made me think about it was the “common” sunflower, which is an extraordinary plant, one that I featured more often than any other in my blog last year. Too bad I don’t get to see “common” milkweed in central Texas; I’ll just have to make do with my sunflowers.

      Steve Schwartzman

      July 14, 2012 at 7:38 AM

  2. I went looking for a pic of the seed pods, and this surely is the milkweed of my Iowa years. I still can’t get over the fact that I have no memory of the flowers. I suppose they weren’t as much fun for a ten-year-old as those silky seeds.

    Speaking of mistakes being enshrined, there’s an interesting sidenote in the wiki about Euell Gibbons mistaking this for dogbane (Apocynum cannabinum) and going through quite a complicated procedure to make it safe to eat. Apparently his technique got picked up and republished in book after book, despite the fact that toxicity seems to be limited to the seed pods and mature leaves. I’ll stick to broccoli, myself.

    I rather like the fact that the first name endures, regardless. I suspect that introduces a certain caution into the naming process. I was amazed to find that naming’s still an issue, as in this article about the really cool Spigelia genuflexa.


    July 14, 2012 at 7:21 AM

    • And I may have seen this milkweed in New York, even if I don’t remember it (though the USDA map doesn’t show it for Nassau County, where I grew up).

      The Euell Gibbons story reminds me that botanists now classify milkweeds among the dogbanes. Here’s what Wikipedia says: “Asclepias L. (1753), the milkweeds, is a genus of herbaceous perennial, dicotyledonous plants that contains over 140 known species. It previously belonged to the family Asclepiadaceae, but this is now classified as the subfamily Asclepiadoideae of the dogbane family Apocynaceae.” Like you, I’ll still take broccoli over milkweed as part of my dinner.

      Yes, botanical naming is still a problem and probably always will be. In the case of this milkweed, I’m glad I got to see the plant in Massachusetts rather than Syria, given the danger in the latter now.

      The article you linked to has taught me a new word, geocarpy. Nothing to carp at there.

      Steve Schwartzman

      July 14, 2012 at 8:41 AM

  3. Beautiful picture, Steve!

    Anne Jutras

    July 14, 2012 at 12:04 PM

    • Merci, Anne. Almost none of the native species I’ve shown in these pages are available to you in Quebec, but here’s one that is. I hope you’ll get a chance to play, photographically or otherwise, with a laiteron / milkweed near you.

      Steve Schwartzman

      July 14, 2012 at 12:27 PM

      • Yes, they are plenty of fields around here with that type of wild flowers. 🙂

        Anne Jutras

        July 14, 2012 at 12:35 PM

      • Good: perhaps we can look forward to some of them in future posts on your blog. (Readers, you’d do well to check out the excellent pictures on Anne’s blog, and to follow along with the text if you can read French).

        Steve Schwartzman

        July 14, 2012 at 12:43 PM

  4. I have always wondered why it was called syriaca~ now I know I’m not alone in my bafflement. It makes sense to me to classify milkweeds with dogbanes… I’ll stick with broccoli as well, though! We have lots of common milkweed here; it’s fun to see it make a guest appearance on your site. You’ve turned a common resident into a lovely star.


    July 14, 2012 at 12:17 PM

    • So now there are at least two of us who have been de-baffled. I wish this “lovely star” (thanks) were as common in Texas as it is in your part of the country, but I can’t really complain, given that we have perhaps half a dozen Asclepias species in Austin.

      Steve Schwartzman

      July 14, 2012 at 12:39 PM

  5. Hey hey! Welcome to New England! I have been tracking the glorious moment when it is possible to see which milkweed flower in a bunch has gotten fertilized. So awesome!


    July 14, 2012 at 2:58 PM

    • Thanks for the welcome, though I’m back to my usual haunts now. I’m glad to hear you’re getting so much fun out of your milkweeds. They seemed to be all over the place up there. Too bad I didn’t have time to observe them at greater length the way you’re doing.

      Steve Schwartzman

      July 14, 2012 at 3:05 PM

  6. I have been trying to see a stage in milkweed at the point where the blossom is turning into pods. I have never seen it, although we have lots of milkweed here. One year I tried planting it around here but a neighbor kept mowing it down…so I still have never seen that point in time when the transformation takes place. I have been fascinated with trying to find it for years… and now I find from your post that there are many kinds of milkweed! Oh! my! It appears to be a plant that could stand some exploration. Many thanks for your great photo and the wonderful descriptions of the various kinds of milkweed there are!


    July 14, 2012 at 4:07 PM

    • There are several dozen species of Asclepias, and more milkweeds in other genera. So far I’ve seen fewer than a dozen, but that leaves plenty of room for expansion. With Asclepias asperula I’ve seen withered flowers and incipient pods: I hope next year you’ll get to see that phase on a milkweed near you. Perhaps putting up some prominent stakes in your milkweed patch would keep the plants from getting mowed down.

      Steve Schwartzman

      July 14, 2012 at 6:31 PM

  7. […] last post showed flowers and beginning-to-open buds of Asclepias syriaca, known as common milkweed. Here’s an earlier stage, when the buds are still green. During the […]

  8. Hi, thanks for visiting my blog and thereby introducing me to yours! I’ve a book on wildflowers of the UK (which is where I live and come from) and it’ll be nice to look at what’s in your part of the world.

    This has a very pretty flower. Are they as waxy to the touch as they appear?


    July 15, 2012 at 3:30 PM

    • Happy visiting from across the ocean. I’m sorry that I don’t know the answer to your question, because this is a species of milkweed that I encountered in the northeastern United States when I was on vacation. The flowers of the most common milkweed in Austin (Texas), Asclepias asperula, are rather firm and waxy, so my guess is that this other species would be similar. If anyone reading this happens to know the answer, please let us know.

      Steve Schwartzman

      July 15, 2012 at 4:54 PM

  9. Nice work here, wildflowers are an addiction for me as well, take care !!

    Bernie Kasper

    July 16, 2012 at 1:36 PM

  10. Now I know what milkweed looks like. I’ve seen them before, found them very interesting but never knew what they were. Guess I had better get a field guide!


    July 17, 2012 at 11:59 AM

    • Yes, a field guide to your area would be a great asset. Think of how many other things you may have seen but not known the identity of.

      Steve Schwartzman

      July 17, 2012 at 2:35 PM

  11. […] Massachusetts series began with a photograph from June 27 of the flowers of common milkweed, Asclepias syriaca, and it ends with a closer view from two days later of the same species, plus a […]

  12. Nice bouquet. Beautiful capture.


    July 25, 2012 at 8:27 AM

    • Thanks. Too bad this species doesn’t grow near enough to central Texas for me to go and take more pictures.

      Steve Schwartzman

      July 25, 2012 at 10:46 AM

  13. […] recently saw the common milkweed of the eastern United States, and a couple of months before that the most widespread milkweed in […]

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