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Roadside natives 3: A golden milkweed

Gold-leaved form of Asclepias syriacus, Common Milkweed. Image ©GardenPhotos.comOne of our common Pennsylvania milkweeds, Asclepias syriaca, Common Milkweed, is a familiar plant along the roadsides in this area. Most of our local plants are unremarkable in the color of their flowers, elsewhere some can be quite a vivid purple, although their downy seed pods are striking. In fact my Pennsylvania wildflower book tells me that the fluffy material surrounding the seeds was used as a substitute for kapok during the Second World War and used to fill life preservers (below right, click to enlarge)!

And, I must also mention, this milkweed is a valuable host for the larval stage of the Monarch butterfly, in fact Monarch larvae feed exclusively on milkweeds. The Monarch migrates to here in Pennsylvania from Mexico each spring. And a Monarch just flew by as I sit here writing this, so the milkweeds seem to be doing their job.Asclepias fruits

Anyway, a couple of miles in the other direction from the plants featured in the last pair of posts on smilacinas and irises is a group of roadside plants of common milkweed, just by a driveway. And one them has bright yellow leaves (above, click to enlarge). I nearly ran off the road when I saw it - it is so dramatic. Milkweed is a tough old plant and a yellow-leaved form would be great to have in the garden.

So, here’s the thing: Is this a self-supporting, standalone plant that would sustain itself in the garden? Or is it attached to those two plants behind it? Does it have enough chlorophyll in its foliage to support itself - there’s definitely a hint of green in the shoot tip - or is it attached to the plants alongside and getting its nutrients from them? Or has the root just hit a patch of something nasty?

Best way to find out: Keep an eye on it through the summer, see if it stays yellow, and then, if it does, in the fall, sneak out in the dark of the night and dig it up. And plant it in the garden here to see how it does. It’s not on private property, but what do you think the response will be if I ask the state or the county government if I can dig it up? Yes: years of hassle and obfuscation. Go for it, I say.

Monarch-EchinaceaI’ll post an update in the fall, and report on the plant's continuing yellowness – or lack of it. But even if that yellow-leaved plant dies, or just turns green, when it's moved to the garden the fact that we have so many milkweeds in this area helps ensure the larvae thrive and that we get to see the adults here in the garden (left, click to enlarge)

UPDATE UPDATE UPDATE I just went and had another look. And someone has cut the top off! What a nerve! Well, more than just the top, about half the plant has been cut off and a new shoot is already starting to grow from the top leaf joint on what remains. [It's very hot and wet here, things grow quickly.] Also, the plant is noticeably greener. Driving by now, I'm not sure I'd spot it.

I should say that I was a little slow getting this picture up here so it must be two or three weeks since the picture at the top was taken. But cutting off half the plant - mystifying. This is not an area packed with expert horticulturalists and sharp-eyed propagators - far from it. In Seattle or Surrey I'd be less surprised. Anyway... I'll keep watching.


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Graham Spencer

That looks really interesting. Keep me posted! In my experience, a rich yellow like that is more likely to survive on its own than pale yellows (and certainly than white, which always dies). It might be worth taking the tip out of it to encourage it to branch. The tip could also be put into tissue culture - I have friendly labs who would have a go at that sort of speculative project to see if it would work in exchange for the chance to be the first to offer it to growers if it does work!

Ron Rabideau

Awesome Graham! I found a gorgeous 4 color variegated one near the nursery 2 years ago but it didn't come back ):. I did get pictures. Yours should come true from seed and I think I see flower buds. Just hope it doesn't get mowed! I'm posting your link to a Facebook group called Anything But Green!

Ron Rabideau

Graham, I'm pretty certain the species is Asclepias syriaca, not tuberosa, which is Butterfly Weed.

Valerie Gillman

I thought they couldn't be transplanted beyond seedling stage because of the long tap root. When I tried it, it seemed to take, but didn't return in the spring. Could you take cuttings of some kind?

Graham Rice

Dead right, Ron (and also Gordon who emailed). The info is for the right plant but a bleary late night posting led to that slip. Now corrected.

Graham Spencer

Re: removing the top. It wasn't me. Honest.

Alaska Fishing Tackle

Good job on this post Graham. Thanks for sharing. I will keep your article in my idea.

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