For the Love of Milkweed

by Leslie T. Sharpe
as seen in Psychology Today

September mIlkweed in the Catskills Photo: Heather Phelps-Lipton

September mIlkweed in the Catskills
Photo: Heather Phelps-Lipton

Nature, not always equitable, offers the Catskill Mountains recompense for its harsh winters—bitterly cold and, above all, quiet, save for the howling of the wind and the coyotes—autumn, our most glorious season, as rich in color as winter is bereft of it. The reds, yellows, and oranges of the sugar maples, the red maples’ scarlet, fire the hillsides; the golds of the aspens and birches, the beeches and oaks, amber and bronze, are subdued but strong, all anchored by the evergreens. Autumn also offers a vibrant array of wildflowers—two of my favorites, the daisy-like asters, called “frost flowers” here, with their starry heads and tiny spikes of purplish blue, lavender, light pink or white, encircling a modest medallion of orange; and tall, waving goldenrod, with its clusters of small yellow flowers, burnished by the sun, the color of an Indian summer day, buzzing with bees, which make of it a dark, luxurious fall honey.

It is a marvel of engineering — a tiny brown seed attached to a silken thread, snuggled among thousands of others in a pod that ripens, then finally splits open to release them

It is in October, amid the vibrancy of fall color, the last rally of life before winter, that you will see what appear to be cottony “puffs of cloud”—in the words of my young niece—blown by the wind. These are milkweed seeds, spun into the air attached to fibers softer than the softest silk which act as parachutes to disperse the seeds far and wide. It is a marvel of engineering, a tiny brown seed attached to a silken thread, snuggled among thousands of others in a pod that ripens, then finally splits open to release them. As a child, on fall walks, I hunted for milkweed everywhere—in suburban lots as well as country meadows and by the side of every road—and kept a sharp eye out for the green textured pods that adorn the tall stalks, which resemble elongated eggs with one pointed end.

In a season of such brilliance, the common milkweed—the species that colonizes the Northeast—stands out for its very plainness. Even in June, when new green shoots of milkweed appear, growing with startling speed in my sunny meadows until they reach heights of 3 to 5 feet in high summer, the plant is undistinguished, if robust-looking. Its reedy stalks, tough and fibrous, host broad, thick leaves, oblong in shape, which are arranged in opposite pairs on the stem. In a meadow lush with wildflowers and sweet native grasses, and tangled with stubborn shrubs such as the wild rose, a solitary milkweed, despite its height, is difficult to spot. But the genius of milkweed, in addition to colonizing dry, even rocky soil and waste places that other plants eschew, is that it sends out rhizomes—underground runners or roots which contain buds that develop into shoots. These insinuating rhizomes allow milkweed to spread rapidly, establishing dense, dark green, readily recognizable patches. It is in July when the common milkweed finally loses its anonymity. Exquisite pink to pale violet flowers appear, in clusters of nodding bell-like blooms, each as delicate as its parentplant is ungainly. The fragrance of these flowers can only be described as intoxicating. It is an alluring sweetness, which fills the senses. To stand in a thicket of milkweed on a summer day, as I often do, when its pretty pinkish flowers are in bloom, breathing in their scent, is to enter nature’s secret, seductive world—a world of bright butterflies and so many bees, all besotted with the desire for nectar.

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Leslie T. Sharpe, formerly Vice President of the New York City Audubon Society, is an environmentalist and lifelong naturalist living in the Great Western Catskills of upstate New York. She has taught writing and editing at Columbia University, New York University, and the City College of New York. Her book, Editing Fact and Fiction: A Concise Guide to Book Editing, is a staple text for editors and writers alike. Her most recent work is The Quarry Fox and Other Critters of the Wild Catskills, a 2018 IPPY/Independent Publisher Gold Medal Award winner.