Milkweed Fireworks

One of my favorite past times of Independence Day, the 4th of July, is going to a big fireworks show. As I wait on the lawn at my favorite watching spot, the sun sets and small fireworks spring up all around with a “hiss” and a “pop.” The last light fades in the west, and people start to get antsy. Then, suddenly, I hear a deep boom, the kind that vibrates in my chest, and I know the show has started. The sky blossoms with vibrant colors, dark flashes, and artful shapes. The crowd “ooohs” and “aaaaahhhhs.”

In a happy coincidence, this is also the perfect time to take in milkweed fireworks, the spectacular flowers that look just like exploding fireworks. You don’t even have to wait until dark to view them! These native wildflowers provide food for pollinators, including monarchs. We have 11 species of milkweeds that currently grow in Michigan,  so the four species I have below are just the beginning.

To start, take the common milkweed, Asclepias syriaca. Their bunches of flowers resemble the really big fireworks that explode in a big orb of colorful light, way up in the sky.

The beautiful spheres of the common milkweed inflorescence are not so common. In fact, they are quite beautiful!
The beautiful spheres of the common milkweed inflorescence are not so common. In fact, they are quite beautiful! These plants are in our native flower beds at the entrance to the Paint Creek Cider Mill.

I also enjoy the fireworks that resemble a cloud of falling stars, or a weeping willow. There is a milkweed for that too! Check out our woodland species, poke milkweed (Asclepias exaltata). The drooping flowers are gorgeous, not to mention the cool leaves!

Unlike most milkweed, poke milkweed can grow in fairly shady areas. We also have this one in the gardens in front of the Paint Creek Cider Mill.
Unlike most milkweed, poke milkweed can grow in fairly shady areas. We also have this one in the gardens in front of the Paint Creek Cider Mill.

The special thing about fireworks is that their bright colors contrast so deeply with the dark night sky. These last two milkweeds rival those fireworks with their brilliant colors. Swamp milkweed, Asclepias incarnata, grows in wet areas.

This beauty lights up the shores of Lost Lake Nature Park with its deep purple flowers. While it usually grows in wet areas, it can tolerate somewhat dry areas in a garden.
This beauty lights up the shores of Lost Lake Nature Park with its deep purple flowers. While it usually grows in wet areas, it can tolerate somewhat dry areas in a garden.

Finally, one of my favorite milkweeds is butterfly milkweed. As I predicted a few weeks ago, the grand finale of the milkweed fireworks show is on display right now at the Paint Creek Heritage Area – Wet Prairie! You need to check it out. Park at the lot at Silverbell on the Paint Creek Trail, and hike north one or two football field lengths. You can’t miss butterfly milkweed, Asclepias tuberosa, lighting up the prairie with its orange flowers.

The grand finale, this milkweed takes the show. A beautiful milkweed for your garden, this species form clumps instead of spreading widely.
The grand finale, butterfly milkweed, takes the show with its orange display. A beautiful milkweed for your garden, this species form clumps instead of spreading widely.

Get out there and check out the milkweed fireworks show this weekend!

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About Ben VanderWeide

I am the Natural Areas Stewardship Manager for Oakland Township Parks and Recreation in southeast Michigan. I have a doctorate in biology (focused on plant ecology) and I am passionate about protecting and managing natural areas.

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