Monday, September 08, 2008


Butterfly Milkweed

This is the fourth in a series of notes to myself about some flowers recently planted in my yard.

Butterfly Milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa)

Hal Borland, Sundial of the Seasons (July 20), discusses Asclepias tuberosa:
The milkweed are in bloom and their fragrance, like a blend of tuberose and and honeysuckle, is heavy at the roadside and along the damp pond margin. The most colorful member of the family, the lovely butterfly weed, even carries the word tuberosa in its Latin name. But the common milkweed, a less showy but more abundant member of the family and the one which produces the big silvery-green pods, seems to have more fragrance, perhaps only because it is more plentiful and has more blooms to scent the air.

The milkweed are known botanically as Asclepias, and ancient lore clusters around them. Asclepius, their namesake, was the legendary god of healing. His first teacher was Charon, a centaur. Asclepius became so skillful that he could revive the dead, and Zeus, in a fit of jealousy, killed him. The serpent was sacred to Asclepius, and the serpent-twined staff of Mercury, one of the symbols of ancient medicine, can be traced to him. Whether Asclepius used milkweed juice in his potions or not, folk healers have cherished the plant for healing respiratory illness. In fact, another common name for butterfly weed is pleurisy root. Though a weed, the plant is not without distinction.

We know it chiefly as a roadside weed whose seed fluff should, but doesn't, substitute for silk, and whose juice might, but doesn't, compete with natural rubber. Country folk often eat the young milkweed shoots like asparagus. Bees love milkweed pollen, and often die entrapped in the blossoms. But in mid-Summer the milkweed is chiefly a fragrance, one of the sweetest of all the flowers at the roadside.
See also Hal Borland, This Hill, This Valley (1957; rpt. Baltimore: the Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000), pp. 108-109.

H. Peter Loewer, Thoreau's Garden: Native Plants for the American Landscape (Mechanicsburg: Stackpole Books, 2002), p. 60, discussing Asclepias tuberosa, says, "Thoreau never mentioned this milkweed. Perhaps when he was writing the journal, the plant hadn't yet wandered east to Walden, but I'm surprised, and sorry, that he missed it."

But Thoreau did mention Asclepias tuberosa in his Journal. On Jan. 19, 1856 he notes that he hasn't found it growing in Concord. On Aug. 28, 1857 he records, "R.W.E. says that he saw Asclepias tuberosa abundant and in bloom on Naushon last week." And on Aug. 9, 1858 he writes, "Edith Emerson gives me an Asclepias tuberosa from Naushon, which she thinks is now in its prime there." Naushon is an island off Cape Cod. Loewer was probably misled by the usually thorough index to the Torrey-Allen edition of Thoreau's Journal, which has no entry for Asclepias tuberosa. Google Book Search locates the passages.

Robert Frost calls butterfly milkweed "a leaping tongue of bloom" in The Tuft of Flowers:
I went to turn the grass once after one
Who mowed it in the dew before the sun.

The dew was gone that made his blade so keen
Before I came to view the leveled scene.

I looked for him behind an isle of trees;
I listened for his whetstone on the breeze.

But he had gone his way, the grass all mown,
And I must be, as he had been,—alone,

"As all must be," I said within my heart,
"Whether they work together or apart."

But as I said it, swift there passed me by
On noiseless wing a bewildered butterfly,

Seeking with memories grown dim o'er night
Some resting flower of yesterday's delight.

And once I marked his flight go round and round,
As where some flower lay withering on the ground.

And then he flew as far as eye could see,
And then on tremulous wing came back to me.

I thought of questions that have no reply,
And would have turned to toss the grass to dry;

But he turned first, and led my eye to look
At a tall tuft of flowers beside a brook,

A leaping tongue of bloom the scythe had spared
Beside a reedy brook the scythe had bared.

[I left my place to know them by their name,
Finding them butterfly weed when I came.]

The mower in the dew had loved them thus,
By leaving them to flourish, not for us,

Nor yet to draw one thought of ours to him,
But from sheer morning gladness at the brim.

The butterfly and I had lit upon,
Nevertheless, a message from the dawn,

That made me hear the wakening birds around,
And hear his long scythe whispering to the ground,

And feel a spirit kindred to my own;
So that henceforth I worked no more alone;

But glad with him, I worked as with his aid,
And weary, sought at noon with him the shade;

And dreaming, as it were, held brotherly speech
With one whose thought I had not hoped to reach.

"Men work together," I told him from the heart,
"Whether they work together or apart."
The couplet "I left my place to know them by their name, / Finding them butterfly weed when I came" appears in all editions up to 1946, but was thenceforth dropped by Frost.

Britton & Brown (III, 24) describe the genus Asclepias thus:
Perennial erect or decumbent herbs, with opposite verticillate or rarely alternate entire leaves, and middle-sized or small flowers in terminal or axillary umbels. Calyx 5-parted or 5-divided, usually small, the segments or sepals acute, often glandular within. Corolla deeply 5-parted, the segments mostly valvate, reflexed in anthesis. Corona-column generally present. Corona of 5 concave erect or spreading hoods, each bearing within a slender or subulate incurved horn, either included or exserted. Filaments connate into a tube; anthers tipped with an inflexed membrane, winged, the wings broadened below the middle; pollen-masses solitary in each sac, pendulous on their caudicles. Stigma nearly flat, 5-angled or 5-lobed. Follicles acuminate. Seeds comose in all but one species.
Britton & Brown (III, 25) describe the species Asclepias tuberosa (Butterfly-weed or -flower. Pleurisy root) thus:
Hirsute-pubescent; stems stout, simple, or branched near the summit, ascending or erect, very leafy, 1°-2° high, the milky sap scanty. Leaves alternate, lanceolate or oblong, acute or sometimes obtuse at the apex, narrowed, rounded or cordate at the base, sessile or short-petioled, 2'-6' long, 2"-12" wide; umbels cymose, terminal, many-flowered; peduncles shorter than the leaves; pedicels 1/2'-1' long; corolla-segments about 3" long, greenish orange; corona-column about 1/2" long; hoods erect, oblong, bright orange, or yellow, 2-3 times as long as the stamens, longer than the filiform horns; fruiting pedicels decurved; follicles nearly erect, finely pubescent, 4'-5' long.

In dry fields, Maine and Ontario to Minnesota, Florida, Texas, Chihuahua and Arizona. Consists of numerous races, differing in shape and size of the leaves and color of the flowers. June-Sept. Wind- or orange-root. Canada-, flux-, tuber- or white-root. Orange swallow-wort. Yellow milkweed. Indian-posy.
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