Monarchs and milkweed in midsummer

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Milkweed is in full flower by midsummer, and the monarch butterflies know it. They flutter over the purple or pink blossoms, sipping nectar, and lay their eggs on the undersides of the broad leaves. There the tiny larvae will hatch and find a ready meal as they develop into lovely striped caterpillars.

In about a month they will have grown sufficiently and completed their last molt. Then they will seclude themselves inside shiny green and gold chrysallis wonders -- emerging as clean new monarch butterflies. And so goes the unending cycle.

But what of this milky plant on which the monarch dines almost exclusively, which so imbues the monarch larvae with its acrid taste that no bird will attempt to eat it? It has a more elegant name -- silkweed. But nature isn't soft; it decrees that bees are not welcome here. They're trespassers on what is exclusively the butterflies' preserve. (Those that push a welcome are likely to get their feet tangled up in the pollen masses or fissures of the flower's corona.)

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Gourmands know all about the delicious milkweed. (The bitterness is removed by boiling it in water.) It may be eaten in many forms -- prepared like asparagus, spinach, broccoli, or okra. But it tastes like itself -- a good, palatable green vegetable. Small shoots, new leaves, flower buds, and young pods offer themselves as the season advances.

A bed of milkweed -- also known as ``Cinderella weeds'' -- turned heads at the 1875 Centennial exhibition in Philadelphia. Recipes for milkweed, which is deemed nutritious, are generously provided in ``Stalking the Wild Asparagus,'' by Euell Gibbons, and ``Eat the Weeds,'' by Ben Charles Harris. The ``monarch flower'' (Asclepias syriaca) is also praised in another book, ``Wild Edible Plants of New England,'' by Joan Richardson.

There are many kinds of milkweeds, including the gorgeous orange butterflyweed -- summer's show-stopper in field or home garden. No one in his right mind would have the heart to eat that one. But as with other varieties, the flowers develop to pods filled with white down, which is attached to flat brown seeds overlapped like fish scales. Mature pods split open and lightweight seeds, each with a silken streamer, are released to float off into tomorrow.

Country children made pompons for their hats with the seedtuff ``fish'' before the pods ripened. Those dried fish also made charming bits of decorative fluff. And what child (of whatever age) doesn't enjoy stripping the husks to release those silvery parachutes that go blithely sailing into perennial summer?

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