It’s all in the family

Photo: Butterfly milkweed

Milkweed seed pod
Milkweed seed pod
Sand milkweed
Sand milkweed

By Bria Fleming

Did you know that poison ivy and mango are related?  How about mustard and turnips? With so many different plants in the world, botany (the science of plants) can seem daunting! Luckily, each plant family has distinguishable characteristics that can help identify it and others related to it.  In this article, we’ll move beyond the “Ooh, that’s pretty!” phase of botanical interest, and start taking a closer look at an easily identifiable plant found in our area.
The plant family for today’s lesson is Asclepiadaceae, the milkweed family.  Milkweeds can be found in all shapes and sizes, from the tiny whorled milkweed to the giant common milkweed.  Milkweeds grow in all types of environments.  Swamp milkweed likes – you guessed it – wet environments.  Butterfly weed, with its brilliant orange bloom, likes its soil dry. There are seventeen different milkweeds which grow in our Northwest Indiana and Northeast Illinois area, in a wide variety of flower colors.
So how do know if you’re looking at a member of the milkweed family?  If the plant is in flower, you will notice that the flowers have a very unique shape.  Each flowering head is made up of many small flowers, each with five upward pointing petals which come together at the base forming a cup shape.  Below these upward pointing petals are five bracts of the same color hanging down, and together they form little hourglasses often arranged in a large colorful orb.  If the milkweed plant happens to be in fruit (meaning it has started making seeds), you will see long pointed seed pods full of flat brown seeds with white fluff attached.  When the seeds are ready to be sent out into the world, the pods open along one seam and the seeds take flight on their fluffy wings!
Despite the huge range of characteristics found in most plant families, there are always patterns you can look for – like the flower and seed traits we discussed above – to help you identify the plants you find.  Learn to recognize these patterns in plant families, and everything else will start falling into place!
That concludes today’s lesson.  If you’ve enjoyed yourself and want to know more, there are several hundred other plant families to choose from, and there are excellent sources of information online or in print.  For hands-on experience with the above mentioned milkweeds as well as many others plants, head to your local natural areas, or stop by the Kankakee Sands Native Plant Nursery for a volunteer day: every Thursday morning throughout the summer and fall.  We would love to see you and show you some of Newton County’s finest plant families.

Bria Fleming is the Prairie Restoration Seed Assistant at Kankakee Sands. She enjoys long walks in the prairie, puppies and puppy drool.

The Nature Conservancy’s Kankakee Sands of Indiana and Illinois is 10,000 acres of prairie and savanna habitat in Northwest Indiana and Northeast Illinois, open every day of the year for public enjoyment.  For more information visit or call the office at 219-285-2184.

Photo credits: Milkweed seed pod:; butterfly milkweed:; sand milkweed:

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