Milkweed - Monarch Butterfly Superfood
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)
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..
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.
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-->
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