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How to Grow Milkweed for Monarch Butterflies

  • 4 min read

Milkweed, scientifically known as Asclepias, is a huge genus with over 140 species throughout North America. This herbaceous perennial gets its common name from the milky white sap that oozes from its leaves if they are damaged. Milkweed is the only plant that hosts monarch caterpillars to serve as food and habitat. It also provides additional protection for monarchs by producing a chemical that makes the monarchs toxic and bitter-tasting to some of their predators. If milkweed dies off, so do the Monarch butterflies.

About Monarch Butterflies

monarch caterpillar

Monarch butterflies are the most recognizable species in North America. They are characterized by orange and black markings, but what makes them particularly remarkable is the fact that they migrate each year. Monarch butterflies fly from as far away as Canada, across the United States to overwinter in certain forested areas of coastal California and central Mexico. Over the past 20 years, communities and scientists have noticed a drastic decline in the monarch butterfly population. It has dropped over 70 percent in California and 90 percent in Mexico, largely due to loss of habitat because of urbanization, conversion of grassland to agriculture, and widespread use of herbicides. You can help the monarchs during migration by planting milkweed in your survival garden.

Choosing a Milkweed Species

It is important to only plant milkweed species that are native to your region. One particular species to avoid is tropical milkweed (Asclepias curassavica) because, while it is easy to grow, it hosts a parasite that infects and harms monarchs. You can contact your local extension office to find out what species are native to your area.

Milkweed seeds

There are 3 varieties that are suitable to grow in most regions of the United States.

Growing Milkweed

Choose a location that receives full sun for 6 to 8 hours daily. Milkweed self-seeds very easily, so you may want to take that into consideration and choose a spot where you can control the spread of the plants like a far corner or border.

Milkweed isn’t particularly picky when it comes to soil. Average garden soil will work in most cases, however, Swamp Milkweed prefers a more moist, humus-rich soil.

When planting milkweed from seed, the seeds should be sown outdoors in the fall because the seeds require a period of stratification (exposure to cold, moist conditions) to encourage good germination in the spring. If you cannot plant the seeds in the fall, you can mimic winter by stratifying the seeds in your fridge for at least 30 days prior to planting after the chance of frost has passed in the spring.

Because milkweed has a taproot, it does not transplant well, so planting seeds outdoors is best. Plant the seeds in smooth, clump-free soil and press them into the soil (do not cover them as they require light to germinate). Keep the bed moist until seedlings are well established and then thin out any plants that are spaced too close together so they do not have to compete for light.

Milkweed Care

milkweed seeds

Like most wildflowers, milkweed doesn’t require a lot of pampering. Most species handle heat, drought, and pests. Because it is a native plant that tolerates poor soil, it doesn’t need fertilizing. With the exception of Swamp milkweed, milkweed prefers dry soil, so mulching isn’t necessary either. Some insects are immune to the toxic effects of milkweed but will do little harm to the plant itself. It is good to remove leaf litter and spent stalks in the fall to prevent fungus and other diseases.

To extend the availability of nectar for monarchs and other pollinators, you should prune dead blossoms to encourage new buds. If you don’t want milkweed to take over your garden, you can remove the seed pods before they split open in the fall. If you’d like to save seeds, allow the seed pods to dry on the plant and harvest the seeds. To prevent them from bursting open and spreading, you can tie paper bags around the pods until they are mostly dry, then remove them and dry them thoroughly before storing the seeds.

When handling milkweed, it is a good idea to wear gloves. The toxic compounds it produces that protect the butterflies can be irritating to the eyes and skin and may be harmful to pets and livestock.

A Survival Garden Star

Not only is milkweed vital for monarch butterflies, but it brings much more than pollinator habitat to your survival garden.

  • It produces beautiful, nectar-rich blooms that attract other pollinators like bees and hummingbirds.
  • The entire plant is edible in various stages. Young shoots are tasty; unopened blooms and seed pods are also edible.
  • Milkweed is a source of bast fiber (like linen from flax).
  • Milkweed seed floss is buoyant and insulating; it has been used for stuffing pillows and life jackets.
  • It has many medicinal uses, from the anise-flavored root to the milky sap.

Milkweed truly shines as a multi-functional plant. It provides beauty in the garden, native habitat for monarch butterflies, and attracts pollinators. Milkweed is also versatile and useful as a medicinal herb and edible plant. All of these factors, plus its resiliency and low-maintenance nature, make it an excellent choice for any gardener, especially those who are focused on survival gardening.

Monarch caterpillar

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