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Good Plant / Bad Plant

by Tim Kennelty

Column #3 - Milkweed & Bush Honeysuckle

Good Plant/Bad Plant is a monthly feature of the TGazette, focusing on two plants in each edition – one plant that is ecologically valuable – and one plant on the other end of the spectrum that is invasive or a noxious weed.

Happy June everyone! This month our good plant – or plants in this case are just emerging and our bad plants are fully in bloom — you might even have commented about how pretty they are. The species just emerging are our native milkweeds. And the bad plants blooming or just finishing their bloom period in our area are our bad plants of the month – the Asian bush honeysuckles.

Milkweeds are one of my favorite groups of plants because they really are beautiful and beneficial. The Latin name for milkweed’s genus Asclepias is derived from Asclepios, the Greek god of medicine, because some of the milkweed species have a history of medicinal use for wart removal and lung disease. And note that “weed” is part of the common name. Many native plants such as ironweed, sneezeweed, and butterfly weed were thought of as weeds because they were abundant and rapidly spread in disturbed areas, even though they have significant ornamental and wildlife value. So, don’t judge a plant by only its common name.

Asclepias syriaca (common milkweed)

Milkweeds have gained recognition in recent years and rightly so, because they are the only host plant for monarch butterflies. Yes, you heard that right. The only plant upon which monarch butterflies will lay their eggs, and the only leaves that monarch caterpillars will eat to survive are plants in the milkweed group. And since monarchs’ numbers are declining at an alarming rate, milkweeds should be at the top of your list for inclusion in the garden. And if that’s not enough, milkweed flowers are rich in pollen and nectar and are extremely attractive to native bees, wasps and beetles, as well as a large number of butterfly species in addition to monarchs. In fact more than 450 species of insects are known to feed on some portion of the plant.

Asclepias incarnata (swamp milkweed)
Asclepias tuberosa (butterfly milkweed)

The good news is that there are more than 70 different species of milkweeds in North America, and no matter your cultural conditions, there’s most likely a milkweed for you. The most common milkweed is, well, common milkweed or Asclepias syriaca. This is a tough plant that likes full sun but can tolerate a variety of soils. It has a deep tap root so once it’s established it’s not really going anywhere. While some may find common milkweed to be too aggressive because of its spread, I love this plant for its bold look and beautiful scent and I let it grow wherever it wants in my garden. If you have a wet area by a pond or stream, you might want to try swamp or marsh milkweed (Asclepias incarnata). This is a well-behaved, moisture loving plant with deep pink flowers. I grow it in a drainage ditch. And, if you have drier well-drained, sandy soil in hot sun, check out butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa) with all the same benefits as common milkweed but in a smaller, less-aggressive plant with bright orange flowers. There’s also poke milkweed (Asclepias exaltata) for shady sites and whorled milkweed (Asclepias verticillata) with white flowers and a later bloom time. All of these species are native to eastern North America, and all emerge about now, so the eager gardener needs to take care in not digging them up by accident. So, if you’re serious about helping the monarchs and want an easy-care beautiful plant, make sure you include at least one of these milkweeds in your garden.

And now to our bad plant – the dreaded bush honeysuckle. In the Northeast, when we’re talking about bush honeysuckles, we’re generally referring to 3 species – Morrow’s, Tartarian and the Amur Honeysuckle. Their tubular flowers range in color from white to dull yellow to bright pink and everywhere in between. All three are native to Asia and were brought here as ornamental plants in the late 1700 to early 1800s. They are all perennial shrubs 6-15 feet tall with egg-shaped leaves, hollow stems tubular flowers and red berries. Like many invasive plants they are among the first to leaf out in the Spring and last to drop their leaves in the fall.

Bush Honeysuckle
Bush Honeysuckle

The seeds are often dispersed by birds and these shrubs can invade – and I mean invade – open sunny areas, crowding out and shading out beneficial native vegetation. Because they were imported and did not co-evolve with other species, they do not support insects eaten by birds or deer and other herbivores. Moreover, they can have a negative impact on birds preparing for winter who eat their fruit. Unlike berries from native shrubs which can be high in fat content, Asian honeysuckle berries are composed of mostly sugar and don’t provide adequate nutrition when birds are eating to overwinter or migrate.

I know that some folks think these are pretty shrubs and indeed that’s why they’re here. But, if you have them on your property, please consider appropriate controls. Such controls usually involve hand pulling of small plants when the ground is damp in the Spring, repeated cutting and possibly application of herbicides. As always, it’s best to know your foe, so I’m including with the transcript some great links with details on identification and management of these pernicious plants.

So, why are you still reading this? Go out and plant some milkweed. The monarchs will thank you.


Taghkanic resident, Tim Kennelty is a Master Gardener and Master Naturalist volunteer through Cornell Cooperative Extension, and is the co-host of Cornell’s weekly Master Gardener podcast, Nature Calls: Conversations from the Hudson Valley.

Milkweed Links:

Asian Bush Honeysuckle Links::

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Another great read. I'm off to pull honeysuckle! Thanks Tim!!

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