Milkweed - Monarch Butterfly Superfood

The 2020 count of overwintering monarch butterflies shows a decline from the previous year. To help them out, avoid using pesticides, and consider planting milkweed species native to the area in which you live, along with other butterfly-attracting plants, like Butterfly Bush. 

Check the USDA Plant Hardiness Zones Map for your planting zone, and choose plants that will thrive there as perennials. There are several sizes, so decide where you want to grow them, and choose the appropriate plant and design of the space.

Milkweed is the sole host plant of the monarch butterfly. That's why growing their host plant is so essential to their survival. 

Monarchs lay eggs specifically on milkweed, the eggs hatch into caterpillars and the caterpillars eat the foliage. The chemicals within the plant make the butterfly larvae toxic to predators. Mother Nature has some pretty neat tricks. By ingesting the leaves, monarch larvae become toxic and predators avoid them.

If you have free-roaming plant-eating pets and don't have these plants contained in elevated planters, they will get sick if they munch out on it. Best plan is to keep your furries out of the pollinator garden by means of fencing, high planters, or banishment from the flower garden when you can't supervise. Many plants and flowers are quite toxic to chewing pets, so this is good advice anyway. Besides, an animal in the habitat means no pollinators or birds will visit during that time.

I grow a few pretty varieties of milkweed/butterfly weed and butterfly bushes, and several types of  butterflies, bees and hummingbirds take turns visiting daily for a meal.

Native Americans and the early settlers used the roots of this plant for treating respiratory illnesses and other ailments. Even though it's potentially poisonous, many indigenous tribes applied milkweed sap for wart removal and chewed its roots to treat dysentery. It was also used in salves and infusions to treat swelling, rashes, coughs, fevers and asthma. 

Asclepias consists of 130 species. Of these, 11 varieties are native or naturalized in Pennsylvania. The three most common species in the Pennsylvania region are common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca), butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa), and swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata). Look up your region's native plants to see which species are native to your area. There are many types, including tropical, so you would want to choose a native plant that will thrive in your gardens. My region is in Hardiness Zone 6b.

Grow pots full of these flowers around your deck and seating areas and enjoy a steady show of Monarchs and perhaps a hummingbird or two while you relax. These plants do not need pruning or any special type of care. Growing in pots means beating the weeds. Just so you know, the Monarch lays eggs on the leaves, and when the teeny buggers hatch, they begin to feed. So you best be okay with holes in foliage. It's part of the cycle. You can mingle the plants among others, or put them behind other flowering plants if holey leaves will make you crazy. Don't pluck leaves in fall before you check for eggs or larvae first, and do not apply pesticides or any other chemical on the plant. Ever. Killing the butterflies, the larvae and caterpillars defeats your purpose, and it's how it got itself almost extinct in the first place, aside from the destruction of their habitats through over-development.

Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca)

Common milkweed is the most well-known species of milkweed that is native to North America. It thrives in full sun to partial shade, and when it can be found, it is commonly found in pastures, field edges and along roadsides. Milkweed spreads by underground rhizomes, so if you're not growing a field of milkweed for yourself or your neighbors, you need to contain it in pots or large raised planters, where it looks very pretty and can be tightly organized. Its height is approximately four to six feet. 

Perfect against structures and fences. It blooms from June to August, and then it bears large clusters of fragrant pink flowers on top of the plant. The leaves are approximately six inches long and are on a single stalk. The stalks contain a milky sap (ergo the name "milkweed). When I was a child, milkweed grew in the parks and picnic areas of wide roadsides in my neighborhood. I remember being fascinated by the "milk" that dripped out of the stems when I picked them.

Butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa)

My favorite because it's a much shorter and tighter plant. 

Butterfly Weed (Tuberosa) are easy to grow and very pretty. These make nice cut flowers, but I hesitate to ration butterfly food. Butterfly Weed prefers full sun in dry to medium soil. 

It is a hardy, drought-tolerant species, reaching one to three feet in height, with a spread of one to two feet. 

The bloom period ranges from late summer to fall. It has vibrant orange-yellow flowers. 

Unlike the majority of milkweeds, the sap of this species is not milky.

It blends well in any perennial garden because of its clumping habit and shorter height, rather than the tall and skinny, spreading common milkweed. And the colors are vibrant and easy to see from a distance.

Swamp Milkweed (Asclepias incarnata)

Swamp milkweed grows best in wet soil with full sun or partial shade. It can reach a height of four to five feet, depending upon the variety, and should be spaced two or more feet apart. The narrow, smooth leaves are 3 to 6 inches long. Swamp milkweed has a long summer bloom period and flower colors can range from white to mauve-pink to purple. Five tiny delicate petals are topped with five nectar cups that are crucial in its intricate pollination. Hummingbirds love it. This species of milkweed is a great choice for a pollinator garden for bees, butterflies and hummingbirds..

‘Ice Ballet’ swamp milkweed
Zones 3-9

Performs very well in rain gardens, perennial beds, and cottage gardens. Plants tolerate damp soils, making them useful in low spots and wet areas. 

This variety of Milkweed blooms mid- to late-summer on upright stems that grow in compact clumps. 36-42" tall x 24-30" wide. Flowers are followed by decorative seed pods, which split open when mature, to release silky seeds that drift on the wind. 

Be aware that if you don't deadhead the flowers before the pods open, these seeds will float around your garden and might plant themselves. If you're growing a wildflower or prairie garden, this is good news. I remove my dead flowers before the pods form because I cannot have them invade the other gardens like the weed they are.
Bees, Monarch and Queen butterflies, Grey Hairstreaks, as well as hummingbirds are frequent diners.

Propagating Your Milkweed

Many species of milkweed are quite easy to grow from seed. It can be planted outside in the autumn, or even in the early winter by just sprinkling the seeds around the garden. Burying the seeds can reduce germination rates. Just drop the seeds in the garden and press them down with your hand. Once you've sprinkled the seeds over the soil there's nothing else to do but wait. In spring, they'll germinate and begin to grow. Once the seedlings are a few inches tall, you can transplant them to different areas of the garden. Swamp Milkweed is not a fan of being transplanted and would rather not be.

Be sure the new plants stay well-watered until they're established. Milkweeds are hardy plants that will survive with very little care. They don't really need to be fertilized, they're native wildflowers. But they do spread, so if your garden has enough plants, you don't need to propagate them, they'll do it themselves. Or you can propagate or divide and share with other gardeners to increase your area's population of Monarch Butterflies who will be healthy enough to make the long trip to Mexico in the fall, and would have laid eggs in your garden before migrating. You can divide and replant them wherever you like. If you grow a Wildflower or Mini-Prairie Garden, Milkweed fits right in.

If you are planting to attract Hummingbirds and tossing out those useless commercial feeders, include Milkweed with the honeysuckles and Hummingbird Mints.

Other varieties of Milkweed for your pollinator gardens

There are several colors and types of Milkweed and Butterfly Weed. 
These plants are perennials in most of the U.S.

When choosing plants for your pollinator gardens, look up a variety's 
hardiness listing in online catalogs, and check zone hardiness on the USDA Plant Hardiness Zones Map to be sure they will be happy in your region. 
These are prolific growers in my Zone 6 garden.


Tagging and Tracking Migrating Monarch Butterflies


Update: Fred was tagged in Michigan and is on his way to Mexico for the winter

I was so excited to host my first tagged traveler during the migration to Mexico, and add him to the database to help scientists track them. I named him Fred, and he's still here today filling up in the butterfly bushes and milkweed plants. I wonder where he slept.

A word about birds and butterflies

 I have been told that birds eat butterflies for snacks, but I have a bird habitat incorporated into my pollinator gardens and i've seen no such thing. They feed right next to each other. Neither is paying attention to the other. I'm sure it's true that if birds see a pretty snack and there's no other food for them, they will eat them. They're insects, and insects are a bird favorite. 

If you have a bird habitat that you keep well-stocked steadily, year-round, with food and water, and they get to eat the aphids, mosquitos and other bugs pestering you and your garden, they have no need to bother the butterflies. If your habitat includes plants that produce berries, that keeps birds happy as well. I haven't been bitten by a mosquito outdoors at night in a decade, and I know it's because the birds live, feed, and reproduce here. But, that's my experience. Make of it what you wish. My birds seem concentrated on 6 feeders spread out all over my gardens, and they get suet in baskets, as well. I don't think they care much about making an effort to catch their meals when it's being served to them. Even in the wild, i've never seen a bird pay attention to a butterfly.

Learn about the Monarch's migration, generally from Sept.-Nov., and about the tagging and recovery program at Monarch Watch--->

An easy habitat to create that will draw in mostly Monarchs, but a lot of other species of pollinators as well, is available as a free download here-->

Monarch Way Stations and Saving The Monarchs--->


Photos and Butterfly Gardens -
Monarch Watch
North American Butterfly Association
Penn State Extension

Detailed Site Directory-->

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