By Rachel Reeb
Of all the road trip games (the License Plate game, Punch Buggy, etc.), “Spot the Milkweed” is my favorite. The rules to win are simple: be the first person to spot the oval leaves or pink flowers of the plant species Asclepias syriaca and yell “MILKWEED!” at full volume. This game has a small but loyal following of one person (myself) . . . but what we lack in numbers we make up for in enthusiasm.
“Spot the Milkweed” was born my freshman year of college, while I was field technician in an ecology research lab. One of my first assignments was to collect leaf-tissue samples from natural populations of the species (you guessed it) Asclepias syriaca, also known as common milkweed. That summer I traveled to more than 30 sites across the state of Virginia, mostly in parks and roadsides, to find this ubiquitous plant. I was on an incredibly tight schedule; typically visiting several sites and driving hundreds of miles a day, with only a vague idea of where the milkweed was located.
On a particularly exciting day I raced down the entire 80-mile length of Skyline Drive in Shenandoah National Park, needing to find and collect from several different populations before an afternoon thunderstorm caught up with me and my driving partner. We completed our collections with only minutes to spare before the pouring rain arrived. Near or far, rain or shine, I learned how to pick milkweed out of a field with an expert degree of accuracy. This action of searching for plants out my car window became so routine that it evolved into a game for me; one which I continued to play even after the fieldwork ended that summer.
The following summer, the game advanced to an entirely new level of difficulty. My field assignment was to study populations of common milkweed across its entire range in North America. This totaled to 60 sampling sites across 26 US states. My driving partner and I lived by a military-strict schedule, usually entering a new state every day. The land managers who informed our search were as helpful as they could be, but still we were often left with vague instructions such as to “drive along this train track” or “hike to this field.” Sometimes, we were led to milkweed that had been mown over or misidentified entirely. In those cases, we’d have to scour the property and find a replacement. I found myself in the most random and unexpected places that summer. Some were unpleasant . . . smelly drainage ditches and painful thorn patches. But the vast majority were beautiful . . . a network of national historic sites, ecological research stations, and nature preserves which spanned the country.
The highlight of my trip was the Joseph H. Williams Tallgrass Prairie Preserve in Oklahoma. At 40,000 acres, this preserve contains the largest remnant of tallgrass prairie left in the world, complete with bison. I was encapsulated in a sea of grassland that extended, nearly uninterrupted, in all directions. While searching for milkweed I was hit by an overwhelming sense of comfort, despite being 1,300 miles away from my university in Virginia. This landscape should not have felt like home. It was flat, silent, treeless, without a single human being in sight . . . the exact opposite of the east coast.
But there was something familiar: a patch of pale pink flowers, sticking out of the grass. Milkweed had become a beacon for me, making each new place recognizable. I followed it across the country like a trail of dots, showing me the connections between every state, every field.
At another time in my life, I would have hidden inside the empty guest house where we stayed that night in Oklahoma. I would have been intimidated by the vastness and loneliness of the preserve. But there were milkweed just outside, welcoming me into the fields. Enticing me to search for wildflowers and insects and bison, and to bear witness to a spectacular sunset.
This has remained a consistent theme in my life, even years after the milkweed-collecting fieldwork had ended. In searching for this plant, I learned how to notice my surroundings with a new level of clarity. It sparked an impulse for exploration that I had not known before. I’ve made it a goal to visit every state in the USA… I have four left to go! Milkweed often greets me at these travel destinations and leads me on a personal tour.
During the pandemic, an entirely new level of isolation, I’ve become even more grateful for this connection with a non-human. I rarely leave home these days and I hugely miss being able to escape into natural spaces, as I used to. Luckily for me, however, my favorite plant is just as fond of the city as any other place. So, I play “Spot the Milkweed” to pass the time; until it’s safe to leave again. I still feel a rush of joy when I see their pink flowers peeking out of the grass, like an old friend waving hello, ensuring me that that I am never truly alone.
Rachel is a graduate student at the University of Pittsburgh, studying plant ecology. You can learn more about her research (or her updated Spot the Milkweed scoreboard) at https://rachelreeb.weebly.com/.