If you could save a species and help other pollinators by planting just one type of flower, would you do it? By planting milkweed this spring you could help save the monarch butterfly as well as other pollinators, such as native bees, honey bees, butterflies, moths, and hummingbirds.
The Monarch butterfly’s population has been cut by 90% in just two decades, mainly from widespread use of the herbicide Round-up (glyphosate), which kills milkweed–their main food source. I know that Monarchs used to be a common sight in my yard in late summer. But last summer I saw just two. You probably have noticed a decline as well. We need to right this wrong.
The Monarch caterpillar eats only milkweed during its larval stage. And adult butterflies will only lay eggs on the plant. For other pollinators, milkweed is a good source of pollen and a great source of nectar.
The good news is that you can easily help the Monarchs and pollinators by growing milkweed in your yard.
How to Grow
Milkweed is easy to grow! Here’s how to do it.
To Grow From Seed
Growing it from seed gives you an advantage–you don’t have to worry about neonicotinoids or other systemic pesticides that are on plants sold by nurseries. And seeds are cheap.
First, before the seeds are sown, they need at least 30 days of cold to germinate. This is called cold stratification. This is easy to do by simply putting a packet of seeds in the refrigerator for at least 30 days. (So it is a good idea to order your seeds now.) You do not need to take this step if you are sowing the seeds in the fall.
To start seed indoors, plant them 6 to 8 weeks before the average last frost. Grow them in peat pots and transplant them while they are still small, as their roots are sensitive to transplanting.
To start seeds outdoors, sow them 2 to 4 weeks before the average last frost or up to 8 weeks before first fall frost. Keep in mind, germination rates outdoors will probably be lower, since it is not a controlled environment. Be sure to keep the soil moist–unless there is rain.
Botanical Interests sells 4 different varieties of milkweed seeds.
To Grow From Plants
My only word of caution, if you decide to buy plants, is to make sure they haven’t been raised with neonicotinoids or pesticides on the plants. Neonicotinoids can stick around for years and will eventually kill a pollinator.
Prairie Moon Nursery offers bare root plants or plants in potted trays (a good way to get a lot of plants for a great value). They do not use neonicotinoids on their plants.
To Grow From Cuttings
It is possible to grow milkweed from cuttings. Simply make a cut from an existing plant underwater, then dip the cutting in hormone rooting powder. Plant it in sand or potting soil. Keep it moist while roots develop.
The Major Types of Milkweed
All varieties are perennials, summertime bloomers, and deer resistant. Once established they tend to be drought tolerant too. Pollinators seem to love them all. The four most common varieties are listed below.
Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) Common milkweed used to be common, growing in virtually every nook of of the United States. Unfortunately that is no longer the case. Grows in full sun or partial shade. It is easy to establish (spreads by rhizomes) and will tolerate every soil condition, except for extreme wet. Native to much of the United States, except for the west. Has a sweet scent. 3′ high Zones 3-8.
Rose Milkweed (or Swamp Milkweed) (Asclepias incarnata) This variety has a more cultivated appearance than common milkweed and less likely to spread. Deeper pink flowers, also available in white. The leaves are narrower. A good choice for a flower bed. Will thrive in sunny spots, medium to wet soils. Will tolerate drier conditions and part shade. Has a sweet vanilla scent. 4′ high. Zones 3-9.
Showy Milkweed (Asclepias speciosa) Grows best in well-drained soils, spreads by rhizomes. Plants have green to silvery-green foliage and stems that are often soft and fuzzy. In summer, the star-shaped pink to white flowers are followed by decorative, woolly seedpods. Native throughout the west and midwest of the U.S.
Butterfly Weed (Asclepias tuberosa) The Perennial Plant for 2017. This variety of milkweed is easily distinguished because of the vivid orange flowers and its shorter stature (usually 1-3′). Great for a sunny spot in a medium to dry area. Works in a variety of gardens. Zones 3-9.
Look for other ornamental varieties such as: Antelope-Horns Milkweed (Asclepias asperula), Purple Milkweed (Asclepias purpurascens), Prairie Milkweed (Asclepias sullivantii) California Milkweed (Asclepias Californica), White Milkweed (Asclepias variegata), Whorled Milkweed (Asclepias verticillata), Mexican Whorled Milkweed (Asclepias Fascicularis), Desert Milkweed (Asclepias erosa), and Green Milkweed (Asclepias viridis). (Just be sure to ask if the plants have been treated with neonicotinoids or other pesticides.)
Want to learn which varieties of milkweed grow best in your area? Take a look at the helpful document by Monarch Joint Venture.
Where to Grow It
Despite having “weed” in the name, milkweed will look great in a variety of situations. Try Rose or Butterfly Weed in your flowers beds. All milkweed varieties work in a wildflower bed. I will be adding Rose Milkweed to my perennial bed this year. My neighbors have allowed a patch of Common Milkweed to flourish at the far edge of their lawn. The pollinators love it. Experiment with different varieties and have fun with it. Think too about your community, town, or city. Are there places where milkweed could be allowed to grow without spraying? Talk to your local officials. Talk to your neighbors.
So go ahead, give milkweed a try this year. Let’s save the Monarch butterfly.