We've had a ton of rain this week in Chicagoland, which means that the few flower beds I'm tending this year are quite overgrown with weeds. I'll tackle them shortly, when it stops pouring down on us, but these guys give me pause:
They showed up just these last few days, I think. They're big, lush, hardy looking, and I have about a dozen of them growing beside the garage.
I once let a sticker bush grow to its full six feet, and was rewarded with a cool purple thistle. But I have no idea what this plant is. Is it a weed or a leftover from a previous garden? Does it produce a flower? Is it worth letting a couple of them grow? Or is this as showy as it gets? Any of you gardening types out there recognize it?
Update: Cool—the consensus seems to be milkweed. I just checked online, and there are over 140 different varieties of milkweed. "The name of the milkweed, asclepias, derives from the Greek God Aeskulap, the god of healing. Asklepios, bearer of a serpent-entwined staff and son of Apollo, was such a skilled healer that he was said to be able to raise the dead." (Thanks to the Flower Society for this info.)
The flowers come in a number of colors and are, indeed, the sole food source for monarch butterfly larvae. The sap of the milkweed contains cardiac glycosides, similar to Foxglove, which make the monarch unpalatable if not downright poisonous to predators. Birds will vomit if they ingest monarchs full of milk.
Hummingbirds are also attracted to milkweed, so they're often planted in hummingbird and butterfly gardens. I've weeded most of that flower bed that has them, but have left half a dozen of these plants scattered through so it looks almost as if I planned for them to be there.
The Woodrow Wilson Foundation had this factoid: "In World War II, children in the United States were encouraged to collect milkweed pods and turn them in to the government, where the fluffy silk was used to stuff lifevests and flying suits. The silk was especially good because of its exceptional buoyancy and lightweight. Also in World War II, because of the shortage of natural rubber, scientists in the United States tried to turn common milkweed’s latex into a rubber like substitute."
Alchemy Works has this to say about milkweed magic: "There's plenty of folklore associated with this wonderful moon plant, probably because of the sheer magicalness of its fluff. It is said that adding milkweed fluff to dream pillows will make one dream of the Fae. Folklore also says that for each floating seed one catches and lets go of, a wish is granted. The flowers are associated with Summer Solstice magick and the fluff with fall equinox. Some sources of magickal lore recommend using the juice of this magick herb to anoint a baby's third eye to enhance its imagination and creativity, but milkweed latex can cause itchy dermatitis even on adult skin. Stroking the area with a leaf tip might be a better idea skin-wise. Iroquois Indians used this plant to prepare themselves to fight witches, so it obviously has protective properties as well as being useful in divination. Its easily spun fibers offer unique opportunities for knot magic."
And finally, in the language of flowers, milkweed means "hope in misery."