Everything You Need to Know About Common Milkweed Seeds - Ernst Seeds
June 11, 2024

Everything You Need to Know About Common Milkweed Seeds

Upclose shot of bees on a Common Milkweed plant

Common milkweed (Asclpeias syriaca) is a decorative species with a sweet scent that is close to that of lilacs. It’s also an essential food source for pollinators and a visually striking soil protector.

Understanding where you can find these plants will help you understand the role they play in native ecologies. Knowing how to identify common milkweed seeds and how to cultivate them in your garden or farm is also a perfect way to exercise responsible environmental stewardship.

To help, we’ve put together this guide to explain everything you need to know about these tall, colorful plants.

Where to Find Common Milkweed

Common milkweed is native to Eastern North America. They range from the eastern provinces of Canada down through the eastern and midwestern United States and extend into parts of the southeastern U.S.

Milkweed thrives in a variety of environments. They are most commonly found in fields, meadows, prairies, and along roadsides. While occasionally found along woods edges, common milkweed prefers sunny locations with well-drained soil and is often one of the first species to repopulate disturbed lands.

The plant’s adaptability to different soil types and its aggressive growth pattern allows it to dominate many types of landscapes where conditions are favorable.

Knowing where common milkweed seeds thrive can lend you insight into their purpose in the balance of nature.

How to Identify Common Milkweeds and Their Seeds

The common milkweed is a robust plant, characterized by:

Milky Sap

When injured, common milkweed secretes a sticky, white sap. This stink sap is common to all milkweed species except butterfly milkweed.

You can tear a leaf to check for common milkweed, but be careful not to get the sap on your skin or eyes. If you do, wash it off with soap and water. 

Sturdy, Upright, & Hairy Stems

Common milkweed can grow up to six feet tall.

Broad Leaves

Their leaves are oval, with a distinctive velvety texture, and arranged oppositely on a stem. They also have a prominent central vein.

Complex Flowers

Milkweed flowers are complex and unique. They usually appear in clusters called umbels, which are spherical and form near the top of the plant.

The flowers are small with pink to mauve petals and a crown of curved horns projecting from the center.

Characteristically Sweet Scent

Finally, milkweed flowers emit a strong, sweet fragrance like lilacs that attracts a variety of pollinators. The distinctive scent of milkweed carries over to honey harvested from production fields. However, this unique aroma is often masked when bees forage across meadows with a variety of plant species.

Common Milkweed Seeds

Common milkweed seeds are housed in pods or follicles that are spindle-shaped and roughly 2 to 4 inches long.

When mature, the pods split open to reveal rows of seeds attached to silky white hairs called floss. This floss allows the seeds to be carried by the wind over long distances.

Each seed is flat and oval-shaped, with a brownish color.

Once you learn where to find common milkweeds and how to identify them and their seeds, you’ll begin to appreciate their significance in the native ecologies of eastern North America.

The Ecological Significance of Common Milkweed Seeds

From providing habitats and resources for pollinators to protecting soil and biodiversity, common milkweed plays a starring role in many of eastern North America’s native ecosystems.

Habitats for Pollinators

Perhaps the most important function of milkweeds is as resources for monarch butterflies and other pollinators.

Milkweed provides necessary nutrients for monarch caterpillar growth. In addition to being a source of nutrients, milkweed leaves contain specific chemicals that, when ingested by the caterpillars, make them less palatable to predators.

Besides monarchs, over 450 different species of insects are known to utilize common milkweed for nectar, as a host plant, or both. This includes various species of bees, wasps, flies, beetles, and other butterflies, which are attracted to the nectar and pollen provided by milkweed flowers.

Enhancing Biodiversity

A healthy population of native, common milkweed significantly enhances biodiversity by supporting a wide array of pollinating insects.

As a central part of the larger food web, milkweed provides essential services such as food sources for various herbivores, omnivores, and insects. This means milkweed serves as a foundational piece of many native ecosystems.

Soil Health and Erosion Control

The robust root system of common milkweed helps stabilize soil and prevent erosion. This is especially useful in vulnerable areas like riverbanks and areas with loose soil.

Milkweed’s ability to thrive in disturbed soils makes it an excellent choice for reclamation projects. In this role, milkweed can help restore soil structure after construction or agricultural use.

How to Germinate Common Milkweed Seeds

When you harvest and cultivate common milkweed seeds, especially as part of a larger pollinator meadow, you’re taking a significant step toward responsible environmental stewardship of your farm or garden.

Your efforts in maintaining healthy milkweed populations benefit pollinators, enhance insect biodiversity, and aid soil and water conservation.

How to Cultivate Common Milkweed Seeds

For maximum germination of common milkweed seed, it is helpful to cold stratify the seed. Without cold stratification, the hormone balance in some of the seeds will prevent them from germinating.

Cold stratification is a process that mimics the natural cold, moist conditions the seeds would encounter during the winter. During this time, hormone levels in the seed will shift from preventing germination to permitting it. Following natural or artificial cold, moist stratification, common milkweed seeds will germinate when soil temperatures and moisture content are favorable.

If you’re not sure how to properly germinate your common milkweed seeds, our guide can show you the steps.

Harvesting Milkweed Seeds

You can collect seeds from pods starting in late summer or early fall. When pods begin to split, it is a good time to begin checking the seeds for ripeness and viability. If the seeds are not brown, they are not ripe. 

If they are brown but paper thin when pinched between your thumb and fingernail, they are not viable, meaning the seed is not alive and will never germinate. Pods producing unviable seeds often release their seeds one to two weeks before pods with viable seeds.

To harvest the seed, open the pods then grab the floss at the top of the pod with one hand and use your other hand to strip the seed off. Then you can store them in a cool, dry place until you’re ready to stratify and plant them.

Get the Highest Quality Common Milkweed Seeds from Ernst Conservation Seeds

Now that you understand how to identify both common milkweed seeds and their plants, you should have a solid grasp of the role they play in keeping native ecosystems healthy and balanced.

By planting and harvesting common milkweed seeds, you participate in a cycle of growth that supports pollinators, fortifies biodiversity, and enhances soil health.

For those looking to source high-quality milkweed seeds, Ernst Conservation Seeds offers a selection of species appropriate for upland, riparian, and wetland plantings.Questions about which milkweed seed is right for your project? Our experts are ready to help.

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