The milkweed, living up to its weed name, often grows in messy areas, abandoned fields, roadsides, and rocky ridges. But it is much more than a weed. Despite its ordinary appearance and humble clusters of lavender or pink flowers, what it offers on the inside is important.
A sweet substance within the leaves is the only food for the caterpillars of the Monarch butterfly. The butterflies lay eggs on the leaves so that caterpillars can hatch right out onto their lunches. At Ardenwood park in Fremont, in cool and rainy January weather, we were able to see both the tiny eggs on the leaves and already-hatched caterpillars munching leaves. I was so surprised to realize that the Monarch caterpillars are also yellowish orange, black, and white.
Inside the stems, there is a milky white sap that gives the milkweed the first part of its name. In the fall, the plant produces seed pods that on the inside are orange, just like the butterflies who rely on the plant. Opening the pod releases a ghostly seed that floats upward on any breeze.
Native peoples in California boiled the small flowers as a flavoring for soup. They turned the tough fibers of the stem into rope.
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