By: Becca Badgett, Co-author of How to Grow an EMERGENCY Garden
The milkweed plant may be considered a weed and banished from the garden by those unaware of its special traits. True, it may be found growing along roadsides and in ditches and may require removal from commercial fields. However, the reason for planting milkweed in the garden flies by in summer and enchants most who see them: Monarch butterflies.
The Milkweed Flower
The milkweed flower (Asclepias syriaca) and its cousin butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa) are an integral part of the butterfly garden, a source of nectar for butterflies and hummingbirds. Growing milkweed supplies larvae of the Monarch with food and shelter, providing caterpillars food and a resting place before they leave the caterpillar stage and become butterflies. As the plants can be toxic; consumption of the plant protects caterpillars from predators.
Historically, the milkweed plant was valuable when grown for its medicinal properties. Today the silky material attached to its numerous seeds is sometimes used for filling in lifejackets. Seeds are contained in an attractive pod that bursts and sends seeds drifting through the air, borne by wind. This is a reason to remove seed pods when you grow milkweed plants.
How to Grow Milkweed Plants
You can easily grow milkweed plants to attract the Monarch and other flying creatures to your garden. Plant seeds of the milkweed plant indoors or direct sow outside after danger of frost has passed and soil has warmed. If the appearance of the plant is too weedy for your taste, grow milkweed plants in a hidden but sunny corner or at the back of a border.
This may lead you to wonder what does milkweed look like. The milkweed plant is an upright specimen that may reach 2 to 6 feet. Leaves grow from a thick stalk and are large and green, taking on a reddish color as the plant matures. In youth, leaves are waxy, pointed and dark green, later dropping from the stem and allowing the milky substance to exude from the growing milkweed. Stems become hollow and hairy as the plant matures. The milkweed flower is pink to purple to orange and blooms from June to August.
Growing Milkweed Seeds
Milkweed often does not begin growing in northern gardens in time to be fully beneficial to butterflies. There you can start seeds of milkweed inside so they will be ready to plant when the soil has warmed.
Milkweed plants benefit from vernalization, a process of cold treatment, before sprouting. They get this when planted outside, but to speed up the growing process, treat the seeds through stratification. Place seeds into a container of moist soil, cover with a plastic bag and refrigerate for at least three weeks. Plant into containers, if desired, and place under a grow light inside about six weeks before soil temperatures outside have warmed. Keep the soil moist by misting, but seeds can rot if allowed to sit in soggy soil.
When plants have two sets of leaves, transplant the seedlings to their permanent, sunny location outside. Space plants about 2 feet apart, if planting in a row. The milkweed plant grows from a long taproot and does not like to be moved after planting outdoors. Mulch can help conserve water.
Grow milkweed plants in mixed borders, meadows and natural areas. Grow milkweed plants with tubular-shaped, shorter flowers in front of them to offer more pollen to our flying friends.
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Milkweed Plants: Growing Milkweed for Monarchs
A Monarch butterfly feeding on nectar from a milkweed. Photo by: Catherine Avilez / Shutterstock.
Never judge a plant by its name. That’s certainly the case with this wildflower that isn’t really a weed at all. This tough native of North American fields, wetlands, and prairies is the sole host plant for the struggling monarch butterfly.
“Summer in a milkweed patch is a colorful place,” says Aunrag Agrawal, author of Monarchs and Milkweed. “Not only are the flowers beautiful, but fragrances waft by and bees are buzzing around. And you might see a monarch butterfly perched on a flower or find one of its caterpillars grazing the leaves.”
Which Milkweed Should I Grow?
There are so many milkweed varieties to choose from. Which milkweed you choose to grow depends a lot on where you live.
Northeast & Midwest
Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) is the best choice for New England’s long winters and rocky fields.
Swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) is perfect in wetlands or bright, garden pots. It can tolerate both very wet and very dry soil conditions.
Butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa), also known as “pleurisy root”, grows beautifully in southern climates. Its bright orange flowers attract bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds.
Swamp milkweed grows well in the south as well.
West & Southwest
Showy Milkweed (Asclepias speciosa) and Arizona Milkweed (Asclepias angustifolia) are hardy at high altitudes, and in the western regions’ dry conditions.
We have ordered a variety of native flower seeds from Everwilde Farms, which you can order right from Amazon through our link on our RECOMMENDED PRODUCTS PAGE. (We may earn a small commission when you purchase through our links, at no cost to you. This helps support our website.)
So, if you would like to read a very successful milkweed seed germination guide with pictures, then read on……
Milkweed Flower: How To Grow Milkweed Plants - garden
The Monarch is facing the threat of extinction! Do your part by planting wildflowers they love - all at a great discount!
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The Milkweed and the Butterfly
As a kid, I remember learning that milkweed sap is toxic. But monarch caterpillars can eat Asclepias safely and then become toxic to predators later on in their life cycle.
Our teacher went into the meadow outside of the school, found a monarch caterpillar on a piece of milkweed, and brought it in to show us.
Hoards of children watched the chrysalis formation and waited impatiently for the butterfly to molt. It did, eventually… over the weekend, when nobody was around!
Our teacher said she released it into the wild to prevent it from being cooped up for too long.
I don’t know if the thing simply died and she didn’t want to break our tiny 7-year-old hearts, but I do know that the lessons she taught about the natural dynamic of milkweed and butterfly stuck with me for the rest of my life.
How Integral Is this Relationship?
In a word: it’s absolutely integral!
Monarch caterpillars utterly depend on Asclepias for their diet, but so too do a number of insects all specialized in dining on the otherwise-toxic milky sap of the plant.
A monarch butterfly will lay its eggs on the underside of a leaf. In fact, this is the only place where a monarch will lay its eggs.
When the eggs hatch, the tiny caterpillars start going to town, and chomp down on the Asclepias.
Amazingly, the plants have built-in defenses like irritating hairs and their aforementioned natural toxins to slow the buffet line down, but they do not altogether prevent the insects from using the plant as a food source.
Most monarchs live for an average of 4 weeks, but every fourth generation lives for 6 to 8 months! This is the generation that will complete an incredible flight to the southern regions of North America, to roost and overwinter before continuing the journey northward to start the cycle anew.
This plant is also a primary food source and shelter for a variety of beetles, and has earned its place as a vital native plant species for healthy ecosystems nationwide.
The Butterfly Garden
The popularity of butterfly gardens was spurred in a big way because of the plight of the monarch, and this style of garden has attracted plenty of folks to the realm of gardening. That makes me love butterfly gardens!
Asclepias and other native flowers like black-eyed Susans, echinacea, joe-pye weed, sweet alyssum, and sunflowers are some of the easy-to-grow plants that may make up a successful butterfly garden.
All butterflies are pollinators and are attracted to this style of flower. Plant the right types, and you’ll have a never-ending summer show of cascading butterflies!
The biggest benefit of a healthy butterfly garden is that it strengthens the rest of your local ecosystem. When butterflies are present, that means birds, bats, and other critters that feed on butterflies are able to make a resurgence as well.
Think of a butterfly garden, and milkweed’s place in it, as an essential strand in the food web!
Gardener's HQ Guide to Growing Swamp Milkweed
Asclepias incarnata can be planted in the spring or autumn / fall in moist soils and in a sunny or partial shaded location.
Be aware that if planted in the spring, the plants will concentrate their energies on developing a strong root system, with leaves appearing later in the process.
To plant Swamp milkweed a hole should be made that is twice the size of the plant's root ball, and buried so that the root ball's top is even with the soil top. Fill in the soil applying firm pressure.
Gardeners should choose their planting location carefully, as these plants, with their deep root systems tend to be difficult to transplant. Beyond that advice, they require little care.
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