Idaho’s Native Milkweeds

Concern for monarch butterflies has resulted in increasing interest in milkweeds. Understandably so, as they are the host plants and food source for the larval stage of these migrating butterflies. But milkweeds are an impressive group of plants in their own right, and their ecological role extends far beyond a single charismatic insect. Work to save the monarch butterfly, which requires the expansion of milkweed populations, will in turn provide habitat for countless other organisms. A patch of milkweed teems with life, and the pursuit of a single caterpillar helps us discover and explore that.

Asclepias – also known as the milkweeds – is a genus consisting of around 140 species, 72 of which are native to the United States and Canada. Alaska and Hawaii are the only states in the United States that don’t have a native species of milkweed. The ranges of some species native to the United States extend down into Mexico where there are numerous other milkweed species. Central America and South America are also home to many distinct milkweed species.

The habitats milkweeds occupy are about as diverse as the genus itself – from wetlands to prairies, from deserts to forests, and practically anywhere in between. Some species occupy disturbed and/or neglected sites like roadsides, agricultural fields, and vacant lots. For this reason they are frequently viewed as a weed; however, such populations are easily managed, and with such an important ecological role to play, they don’t deserve to be vilified in this way.

Milkweed species are not distributed across the United States evenly. Texas and Arizona are home to the highest diversity with 37 and 29 species respectively. Idaho, my home state, is on the low end with six native species, most of which are relatively rare. The most common species found in Idaho is Asclepias speciosa commonly known as showy milkweed.

showy milkweed (Asclepias speciosa)

Showy milkweed is distributed from central U.S. westward and can be found in all western states. It occurs throughout Idaho and is easily the best place to look for monarch caterpillars. Side note: the monarch butterfly is Idaho’s state insect, thanks in part to the abundance of showy milkweed. This species is frequently found growing in large colonies due to its ability to reproduce vegetatively via adventitious shoots produced on lateral roots or underground stems. Only a handful of milkweed species reproduce this way. Showy milkweed reaches up to five feet tall and has large ovate, gray-green leaves. Like all milkweed species except one (Asclepias tuberosa), its stems and leaves contain milky, latex sap. In early summer, the stems are topped with large umbrella-shaped inflorescences composed of pale pink to pink-purple flowers.

The flowers of milkweed deserve a close examination. Right away you will notice unique features not seen on most other flowers. The petals of milkweed flowers bend backwards, allowing easy access to the flower’s sex parts if it wasn’t for a series of hoods and horns protecting them. Collectively, these hoods and horns are called the corona, which houses glands that produce abundant nectar and has a series of slits where the anthers are exposed. The pollen grains of milkweed are contained in waxy sacs called pollinia. Two pollinia are connected together by a corpusculum giving this structure a wishbone appearance. An insect visiting the flower for nectar slips its leg into the slit, and the sticky pollen sacs become attached. When the insect leaves, the pollen sacs follow where they can be inadvertently deposited on the stigmas of another flower.

Milkweed flowers are not self-fertile, so they require assistance by insects to sexually reproduce. They are not picky about who does it either, and their profuse nectar draws in all kinds of insects including bees, butterflies, moths, beetles, wasps, and ants. Certain insects – like bumble bees and other large bees – are more efficient pollinators than others. Once pollinated, seeds are formed inside a pod-like fruit called a follicle. The follicles of showy milkweed can be around 5 inches long and house dozens to hundreds of seeds. When the follicle matures, it splits open to release the seeds, which are small, brown, papery disks with a tuft of soft, white, silky hair attached. The seeds of showy milkweed go airborne in late summer.

follicles forming on showy milkweed (Asclepias speciosa)

Whorled or narrowleaf milkweed (Asclepias fascicularis) is widespread in western Idaho and neighboring states. It is adapted to dry locations, but can be found in a variety of habitats. Like showy milkweed, it spreads rhizomatously as well as by seed. Its a whispy plant that can get as tall as four feet. It has long, narrow leaves and produces tight clusters of greenish-white to pink-purple flowers. Its seed pods are long and slender and its seeds are about 1/4 inch long.

flowers of Mexican whorled milkweed (Asclepias fascicularis)

seeds escaping from the follicle of Mexican whorled milkweed (Asclepias fascicularis)

Swamp or rose milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) is more common east of Idaho, but occurs occasionally in southwestern Idaho. As its common names suggests, it prefers moist soils and is found in wetlands, wet meadows, and along streambanks. It can spread rhizomatously, but generally doesn’t spread very far. It reaches up to four feet tall, has deep green, lance-shaped leaves, and produces attractive, fragrant, pink to mauve, dome-shaped inflorescenses at the tops of its stems. Its seed pods are narrow and around 3 inches long.

swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata)

Asclepias cryptoceras, or pallid milkweed, is a low-growing, drought-adapted, diminutive species that occurs in southwestern Idaho. It can be found in the Owyhee mountain range as well as in the Boise Foothills. It has round or oval-shaped leaves and produces flowers on a short stalk. The flowers have white or cream-colored petals and pink-purple hoods.

pallid milkweed (Asclepias cryptoceras)

The two remaining species are fairly rare in Idaho. Antelope horns (Asclepias asperula) is found in Franklin County located in southeastern Idaho. It grows up to two feet tall with an upright or sprawling habit and produces clusters of white to green-yellow flowers with maroon highlights. Horsetail milkweed (Asclepias subverticillata) occurs in at least two counties in central to southeastern Idaho and is similar in appearance to A. fascicularis. Its white flowers help to distinguish between the two. Additional common names for this plant include western whorled milkweed and poison milkweed.

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Eating Weeds: Burdock

If we agree that weeds can be famous while simultaneously being infamous, a list of famous weeds must include burdock. Its fame largely comes from being an inspiration for the hook-and-loop fastener, Velcro. The idea for this revolutionary product came when Swiss inventor, George de Mestral, was removing burs – the dried inflorescences of burdock – from his dog in the early 1940’s. Most of us have experienced this, pulling out burs from animal hair or our own clothing, but few have felt inspired to develop a new product. Infamy reigns supreme.

But burdock’s fame isn’t tied to Velcro. Its tenacious, sticky burs, which house the seeds, have been attaching themselves to humans and other animals for centuries, frustrating those who have to remove them but finding new places to grow in the process. And what better way to pay tribute to this phenomenon than to dress oneself in hundreds of burs and parade around town calling yourself the Burry Man? Lest you think I’m crazy, just such a thing has been part of an annual celebration for over 300 years in a town outside of Edinburgh, Scotland.

burs of common burdock (Arctium minus)

Of course, burdock is more than its burs. Other, perhaps less celebrated features, are its edible roots and shoots. Its leaves are also edible, but most people find them too bitter to bother. Green Deane suggests wrapping the leaves around food to cook on a campfire. Both the roots and shoots can be eaten raw or cooked, and the fermented roots along with dandelion roots are traditional ingredients in the British beverage, dandelion and burdock. The roots, shoots, and leaves of burdock have also had a wide variety of medicinal uses.

Two species of burdock have become naturalized in North America – Arctium minus and Arctium lappa. Both species are biennials or short-lived perennials. They start out as rosettes of large leaves with woolly undersides. The leaves grow to a foot or more long and wide. At this stage burdock is similar in appearance to rhubarb. Burdock has a large taproot, which can extend down to three feet in the ground. The taproot continues to grow as the rosette expands. When the plant has reached a certain size it begins to put up a branching flower stalk. It is in the rosette stage, before the plant bolts, that the taproot should be harvested.

As the flower stalk grows, the plant takes on a pyramidal shape, with the leaves along the stalk getting increasingly smaller with height. The plant can reach several feet tall, with one source describing them as towering up to ten feet. The stalks should be harvested before the plants start flowering. Multiple flower heads are produced at the ends of the branching stalk. The inflorescences are composed of purple, tubular, disc florets that are encased and encircled in a series of hooked bracts. The flower heads resemble thistle flowers, but the plant is easy to distinguish from thistles due to its large, soft leaves. Speaking of the leaves, one photographer found them alluring enough to compile a series of photos of them.

Common burdock (Arctium minus): the woolly undersides of the leaves and the tops of the taproots

While burdock can be nuisance plant, it is not particularly noxious. In The Book of Field and Roadside, John Eastman writes, “Burdock cannot be labeled a truly invasive weed, for it rarely intrudes into cultivated fields. Tilling usually controls and eradicates burdock populations. Its favored havens are the disturbed soils of roadsides, railroads, fence rows, vacant lots, and around sheds and old buildings.” In Wild Urban Plants of the Northeast, Peter Del Tredici also comments on burdock’s preference for minimally maintained locations including “vacant lots and rubble dump sites; the edges of emergent woodlands; the sunny borders of freshwater wetlands, ponds, and streams; and on unmowed highway banks and median strips with frequent salt applications.”

I harvested my burdock roots along an unmaintained fence line surrounding a series of raised flower beds. I chose a simple recipe for making burdock chips that involved peeling the roots, cutting them into thin slices, dressing them with olive oil and salt, and baking them in the oven. Since the author of this recipe mentioned buying burdock from a store, they were probably using Arctium lappa, or greater burdock, which is commonly cultivated, especially in Asian countries. Both species can be prepared in similar ways.

burdock roots

The burdock chips had a pleasant nutty flavor, but they were also a little stringy and tough to chew. If I were to do it again, I would probably use a recipe like this one that involves parboiling and then frying. Sierra suggested grating the roots and frying them in bacon grease, which would probably do the trick. There are also recipes for pickled burdock roots, which would be fun to try.

Because the plants I harvested were still in their rosette stage and there weren’t any other plants in the area that were bolting, I didn’t try the shoots. But I’ll keep my eye out, and when I find some I may have to write a part two.

Eating Weeds: Pineapple Weed

When I wrote about pineapple weed (Matricaria discoidea) last year during the Summer of Weeds, I knew that it was edible but I didn’t bother trying it. Pineapple weed is one of my favorite native weeds (yes, it happens to be a native of northwestern North America). I enjoy its sweet fragrance, its frilly leaves, its “petal”-less flowers, and its diminutive size. I also appreciate its tough nature. Now that I have tried pineapple weed tea, I have another thing to add to this list of pros.

pineapple weed (Matricaria discoidea)

One thing about pineapple weed that always impresses me is its ability to grow in the most compacted soils. It actually seems to prefer them. It is consistently found in abundance in highly trafficked areas, like driveways, parking lots, and pathways, seemingly unfazed by regular trampling. Referring to pineapple weed in one of his books about wildflowers, botanist John Hutchinson wrote, “the more it is trodden on the better it seems to thrive.” This is not something you can say about too many other plants.

Both the leaves and flowers of pineapple weed are edible. The flowers seem to be the more common of the two to consume, generally in tea form. In his book Wild Edible and Useful Plants of Idaho, Ray Vizgirdas writes, “A delicious tea can be made from the dried flowers of the plant. The leaves are edible, but bitter. The medicinal uses of pineapple weed are identical to that of chamomile (Anthemis). Used as a tea it is a carminative, antispasmodic, and mild sedative.” In Wild Urban Plants of the Northeast, Peter Del Tredici writes, “A tea made from the leaves has been used in traditional medicine for stomachaches and colds.”

I harvested my pineapple weed at the end of a dirt parking lot and in an adjacent driveway/pathway. I noted how the pineapple weed’s presence waned as I reached the edges of the parking lot and pathway where, presumably, the ground was less compact. Maybe it has more to compete with there – other weeds – and so it shows up less, or maybe its roots simply “prefer” compact soils. Perhaps a little of both. Once I got my harvest home, I rinsed it off and left it to dry. Later, I snipped off the flower heads and made a tea.

I probably used more water than I needed to, so it was a bit diluted, but it was still delicious. It smelled and tasted a lot like chamomile. Sierra agreed. With a little honey added, it was especially nice. Sierra agreed again. The flowers of pineapple weed can be used fresh or dried. They can also be mixed with other ingredients to make a more interesting tea, like the recipe found here.

If you are hesitant to take the leap into eating weeds, a tea may be the simplest thing you can try. Pineapple weed tea is a great way to ease yourself into it. Apart from maybe having to harvest it from strange places, it probably isn’t much different from other teas you have tried, and, from my experience, it’s delightful.

Book Review: A Feast of Weeds

Since I am planning on eating more weeds, it seems appropriate that I review this book. Not to be confused with Feast of Weeds, a series of apocalyptic novels about a world-ending plague, A Feast of Weeds, by Luigi Ballerini is tangentially about foraging and cooking wild, edible plants. I say “tangentially” because it’s not like other foraging guides. This is a “literary guide,” as the subtitle states, so in the place of plant descriptions and harvesting tips, etc. are verbose and erudite essays summarizing the various literary references that each of the species profiled has accumulated from antiquity to the modern era. Apart from dozens of recipes, the information presented in this book is more entertaining than it is practical; however, when telling the stories of plants, the human element is an important facet – particularly in the stories of edible and medicinal plants – and it is the human element that this book is concerned with.

Ballerini is an Italian poet, a cooking historian, and a professor of Italian literature at UCLA. The 31 plant species he chose to profile can all be foraged in Italy (most of them in one specific region), and all except for maybe capers can be found somewhere in the United States. The majority of the plants in this book are commonly cultivated as crops, ornamentals, or landscape plants – few are truly weeds – but all of them can be found growing wild somewhere. And that’s one of Ballerini’s main points – wild food and the act of foraging is a very different experience from farmed food and the act of buying it at the grocery store. Take arugula for example:

Try making a salad with arugula that you have gathered yourself in a field and compare its taste with what you have made a hundred times with pre-washed and sterilized arugula bought at the supermarket or even at a farmers’ market. It’s easy to predict the comment that will immediately come to your lips: ‘There’s no comparison.’

A selection of recipes accompanies each of the plants that Ballerini writes about. These recipes were “invented or elaborated” by Ada De Santis, who lives on a farm in the “heel of Italy” and who “enthusiastically agreed to divulge the secrets of her kitchen.” Ballerini partnered with De Santis because of her Italian ancestry and her vast experience with both wild and cultivated plants.

Each chapter in the book follows the same basic format: a discussion of the myriad references a certain plant has received in various writings throughout human history, an overview of the (often bizarre) medicinal uses the plant has had throughout the centuries, and a brief statement on when to harvest the plant. References include plays, poems, songs, myths, fiction and non-fiction, religious and sacred texts, medicinal plant guides, and even artwork. Reading through the book, my interest and attention waned often, partly due to Ballerini’s way of writing and also due to my lack of familiarity (and lack of interest, frankly) with the references. But there were enough interesting bits here and there that made it worth the effort.

common mallow (Malva neglecta )

Of course, my interest was mainly held by the chapters about the weeds. Apparently, mallow (Malva spp.) has been written about prolifically, leading Ballerini to write, “the history of mallow is complex and contradictory, rich in illustrious testimony but, given its effects, not always very noble.” Like other plants in the book, the medicinal uses for mallow have been so numerous that it could be considered “a true cure-all,” if in fact it truly treated all the things it has been claimed to treat. On a humorous note, Ballerini writes in the chapter on wild fennel (Foeniculum vulgare), “we have come to understand … if a plant is good for you, it is good for nearly everything – but particularly for snakebite.”

Ballerini especially enjoys sharing odd medical claims, like in the chapter about sow thistle (Sonchus oleraceus), in which Nicholas Culpepper promoted some interesting uses for its juice. Purportedly, bringing it to a boil or “warming it in some bitter almond oil inside the skin of a pomegranate is a sure remedy for deafness and tinnitus.” The medicinal uses of wild chicory (Cichorium intybus) are “as old as the hills,” with a medical papyri from ancient Egypt (circa 1550 B.C.) referencing its medicinal uses among “magic formulas and spells for driving away evil-intentioned demons.”

sow thistle (Sonchus sp.)

A couple of paragraphs about dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) find their way into the chapter about wild chicory. The rosettes of these two plants look similar, and the roots of both, when “roasted and ground, can be used as a substitute for coffee.” Dandelion is also known to be a diuretic, and is thus referred to as pisciailetto in Italy, pissenlit in France, and piss-a-beds in England.

Speaking of the names of things, how things came to be called what they are is a topic that Ballerini addresses frequently throughout the book. However, such origins aren’t always clear. In the chapter on wild raspberries (Rubus idaeus), Ballerini reflects on the “general uncertainty regarding the origin of the English term raspberry.” Does it originate from the Old French word rasper, the Spanish word raspar, and the Italian word raspare, all of which mean to rasp or to scrape? Ballerini laments, “this introduces very unpleasant connotations for such a delicate fruit (yet there are those who, when faced with roses always think of thorns).”

While the bulk of this book is of little use to me – I guess I’m just not that interested in classic literature or mythology – it’s worth keeping around for the recipes alone, several of which I am anxious to try. If the idea of an unconventional field guide appeals to you, this book might be up your alley, just as it apparently was for this reviewer.

Additional Book Reviews on Awkward Botany:

Eating Weeds: Lambsquarters

Last year during the Summer of Weeds I inadvertently wrote about several edible weeds, one of which I even ate. It’s not surprising that so many weeds are edible; there are plenty of plants out there – both native and introduced – that are, despite the fact that most of us stick with whatever is made available at the grocery store. Some edible weeds, dandelion included, were once commonly grown for food, while other weeds are close relatives of present day agricultural crops. The more I read about these things and the more my weeds obsession grows, the more I feel compelled to eat them (the edible ones, at least). Hence, a new series of posts: Eating Weeds.

I might as well start with an easy one. Chenopodium album, or lambsquarters, which I wrote about last summer, is a close relative of a number of common crops and a spitting image of quinoa. It happily grows alongside other plants in our vegetable gardens without even being asked to. It is highly nutritious and palatable – particularly the young leaves – and can be eaten raw or cooked. It is often compared to spinach and can be prepared and used in similar ways.

lambsquarters seedling (Chenopodium album)

For the purposes of this post, I decided to try lambsquarters pesto. While pesto is traditionally made using basil leaves, all kinds of other leaves – or combinations thereof – can be substituted. I have made pesto with parsley, which was interesting, as well as watercress, which was delicious. The possibilities are endless. So, why not lambsquarters?

Making pesto is incredibly simple. Blend together a combination of leaves, garlic, nuts or seeds, Parmesan cheese (or something similar), olive oil, salt, and pepper. Pine nuts are traditionally used to make pesto, but like the leaf component, a number of different nuts or seeds can be substituted. I rarely make pesto with pine nuts because, despite being delicious, they are pricey.

lambsquarters pesto

I made two batches of lambsquarters pesto. For the first I used walnuts, and for the second I used sunflower seeds. Both batches were delicious. How could they not be with all of that garlic and cheese in there? Lambsquarters is not a very bitter or strong-tasting green, so lambsquarters pesto might be perfect for anyone who is otherwise not fond of pesto (although that is a stance that I personally cannot fathom).

This is definitely something I will make again. I understand the frustration people have with lambsquarters. It can be prolific and hard to eliminate from a garden. Luckily, it makes an excellent pesto.

Resources:

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This series of posts was inspired in part by the book Dandelion Hunter, in which the author, Rebecca Lerner, attempts to go a full week eating only things she is able to forage in her hometown of Portland, Oregon. As you might imagine, many of the plants she forages are weeds.  

Field Trip: Hyatt Hidden Lakes Reserve

May is American Wetlands Month, which I have written about a few times here. The way we like to celebrate is to find a wetland nearby and spend a couple hours exploring and learning about the area. Luckily there is a wetland a few miles from our house. Hyatt Hidden Lakes Reserve is a 54 acre, city-owned wetland and nature reserve that is open to the public. It features a series of trails designed for nature viewing and recreation. Along the way there is a series of interpretative signs with lots of information about wetlands and the flora and fauna that call them home.

One cloudy Sunday morning, Sierra and I ventured out to our neighborhood wetland. What follows is a photo diary of a few of things we saw while we were there.

The southwest corner of Hyatt Hidden Lakes Reserve

One of the coolest features of the reserve is this bat house called HaBATat.

Seed head of teasel (Dipsacus fullonum); behind it are a series of bird nests designed for various species of cavity nesters.

Common yarrow (Achillea millefolium) with a view of one of the ponds behind it.

We visited shortly after the cottonwoods (Populus spp.) had dropped their fluffy seeds.

Interpretive signage like this teach visitors about the various features and benefits of wetlands.

Walkways like this one allow for a closer view of the wetlands and feature additional interpretive signage.

Sierra spots something in the shrubbery.

Perhaps it was this yellow-headed blackbird.

Or maybe this male mallard.

One strange-looking, yellow-leaved branch among the willows (Salix sp.); Sierra and I wondered why.

Some wrinkly mushrooms that Sierra discovered.

We kept seeing this interesting insect on the flower heads of the grasses.

The butt of a bumblebee on the flowers of yellow sweet clover (Melilotus officinalis), captured by Sierra.

What wetlands did you visit this May? Let us know in the comment section below.

See Also: Field Trip: Bruneau Dunes State Park

Tiny Plants: Draba verna

Draba verna is a small but memorable plant. Common names for it include early whitlowgrass, vernal whitlowgrass, and spring whitlow-mustard. Sometimes it is simply referred to as spring draba. As these common names suggest, Draba verna flowers early in the spring. It is an annual plant that begins its life by germinating the previous fall. While its flowers are minuscule, multiple plants can be found packed into a single section of open ground, making their presence more obvious. This and the fact that it flowers so early, are what make it so memorable. After a cold, grey winter, our eyes are anxious for flowers, and even tiny ones can be enough.

Draba verna

Draba verna is in the mustard family (Brassicaceae), which is easy to determine by observing its flowers and fruits. The flowers are about 1/8 inch across, with four, deeply-lobed petals. The fruits are oblong, “football-shaped,” flattened capsules that are divided into two chambers and hold up to forty seeds or more. Flowers and fruits are borne at the tips of branched stems that are leafless, hairless, and very thin. Stems arise from a small rosette of narrow leaves that are green to purplish-red and slightly hairy. The plant itself is generally only an inch or two wide and a few inches tall, easily missed other than its aforementioned tendency to be found en masse.

flowers of Draba verna via eol.org

Draba verna occurs throughout much of eastern and western North America, but is said to be introduced from Eurasia. A few sources claim that it is native to North America, but as far as I can tell, that is unverified. Either way, it is naturalized across much of its present range, and even though many of us consider it a weed, it doesn’t seem to be causing too much concern. It’s too tiny and short-lived to really be a problem. It makes its home in disturbed and neglected sites – along roadsides; in fields, pastures, and garden beds; and in abandoned lots. The one place it may be trouble is in nurseries and greenhouses, where it might be able to compete with young plants in pots.

open capsule and seeds of Draba verna via eol.org

The flowers of Draba verna are self-fertile, but they are also visited by bees that have ventured out in early spring. The foliage might by browsed by rabbits and other small mammals, but otherwise this plant is of little use to other creatures. Being in the mustard family, it is likely edible, but again it is so small that harvesting it would hardly be worth it. Instead, maybe its best to leave it in place and enjoy it for what it is: a tiny, brave reminder that spring is on its way and an encouragement to get down low once in a while to admire the little things.

An attempt at sketching Draba verna fruits on a raceme.

See Also: Tiny Plants: Duckweeds