Help Monarchs with the Right Milkweeds

shutterstock_16707175What is it about the Monarch butterfly that inspires such admiration? Is it their striking orange and black coloring? The polka-dotted black wing band? The elegant, upward sweep of their wing structure, so symbolic of their royal name? Or is it the utterly incredible feat of their multi-generational migration that can span of thousands of miles and three continents that makes people know and love this butterfly like no other?

The Monarch has been in the news frequently of late, and not with good tidings. Monarch populations have been on a long term decline now for many years. The number of Monarch butterflies making it to their winter refuge in Mexico dropped 59 percent this year, falling to the lowest level since comparable record-keeping began 20 years ago, according to an article in the Washington Post. There are now only one-fifteenth as many Monarchs now as there were in 1997. Experts have called the recent numbers “ominous.

Mexico has made an effort to preserve the few, and small, forest areas where the butterflies over-winter, but a  problem has arisen with the lack of milkweed, a plant the butterfly depends on to complete its life cycle. Habitat loss due to development and the widespread use of chemicals on crops and roadsides has seriously reduced the numbers of these critical plants, with negative consequences for the butterflies.

The connection between milkweed and monarch has become widely known recently. Many people are now aware that although adult Monarch butterflies can nectar on any number of flowers, their offspring, emerging as caterpillars, must eat the leaves of milkweed and only milkweed to reach the next stage of growth and undergo the miraculous metamorphosis that allows an adult Monarch butterfly to come into existence.

What has all this got to do with us? Quite simply, it gives us an opportunity to be a part of a solution.

The 3-D film, Flight of the Butterflies, released this year, does a beautiful job of explaining the Monarch’s life cycle,  its migration path, and the story of how scientists discovered the secrets behind Monarch migration. Towards the end of the film, a third-generation Monarch is heading south and looking desperately for a place to lay her eggs. She must find a milkweed plant or the next generation will be born into starvation. As she flies over acres of fields of chemically-treated corn she finds no milkweed to land upon, and begins to sink down to the ground, her life nearly over, her mission incomplete. But suddenly, on the horizon, a sub divsion of houses appears. At this point, I must admit to a sentimental collapse….could it be? Was there going to be milkweed in one of those backyards? YES! There it was, one of those yards stood out from the sterile boxes of evergreen yews that surrounded it. In that sweet flowery haven, the butterfly landed on a milkweed, and I cried.

That’s reasonable, right?  I have spent the past 13 years preaching this message to everyone who will stand still long enough to hear it, not to mention those who were within earshot and simply couldn’t get away: Native plants make a difference. And there I was in the Smithsonian museum, my mission being validated by the best science, the most creative artists, and the most passionate, forward-thinking people there are. I’m practically crying just remembering it!

Getting back to the subject. The butterfly laid her eggs, ensuring the next generation would make it to Mexico and carry the cycle forward. Which also gets us back to the current situation with milkweed. We can make a difference, we must make a difference. There are so many things we either have no power to change, or very little power to change; but if enough people choose native plants in their yards and their community spaces, we can provide enough biodiversity to preserve many things which are currently endangered, including Monarch butterflies.

To help save the Monarchs the spotlight turns now to understanding milkweeds. What do you picture in your mind when you think of one?  There are over 100 species of milkweed and many common names are used in association with them. These common names are not consistent from place to place and are frequently shared with plants that are not milkweeds at all. It’s no wonder there is a certain amount of confusion about what to put in the garden!

Milkweeds Native to your Region

The most important thing you can do is to plant the milkweeds that are the most common in your own region, and here is a way to find out what those are. The following link is from the Monarchwatch.org site, where you will find each state listed with all the milkweeds that grow there named. When I scrolled down to Virginia, I discovered the names of fourteen species of milkweed that grow here:  Milkweeds by state.

Milkweeds all carry the name ‘Asclepias’ in front, named for the Greek god of healing and medicine; and their medicinal qualities were well known to indigenous peoples. They are classified as belonging in the Dogbane family, Apocynaceae.  Milkweeds are a fascinating bunch with a wide range of characteristics. Certainly we we haven’t got time to look at them all, but the following are among the ones most frequently encountered, and knowing about them will give you a good beginning for understanding what you are actually  looking at when you hear certain names, and then deciding which to include in your garden.

Asclepias syriaca, "common milkweed"

Asclepias syriaca, “common milkweed”

First of all, the thug, Asclepius syriaca . The term ‘common milkweed’ refers specifically to this plant.  Its flowers range from light green to pink-purple. It appears quickly in disturbed meadows and by roadsides, and grows vigorously from underground rhizomes, making it perhaps the most commonly seen of the milkweeds, hence the label.  It also means  that if you have a large amount of space it can spread out in, and let it be contained by other plants in competition, great;  but it is probably not a good choice in a small home garden.

Asclepias syriaca, common milkweed, has spiny pods.

Asclepias syriaca, common milkweed, has spiny pods.

Armitage, in his Native Plants for North American Gardens, says of A. syriaca that he would never put it in a garden, but “the further you get from the farm, the more the plant grows on you, especially if you stick your nose in the flower.” And I have to admit, I love it. The fragrance is wonderful, the flowers  are huge, dense, and great pollinator attractors.  The syriaca has deep tap roots, so it withstands drought, and casual removal, equally well.  Some people refer to it as being a “runner.” Truly a great plant in the right spot.

 

Asclepias tuberosa, or "butterfly weed"

Asclepias tuberosa, or “butterfly weed”

Next, Asclepius tuberosa. This milkweed is distinctive for its orange color. It carries the common name of butterfly weed in addition to 14 other names, including Canada root, fluxroot, yellow milkweed, butterfly love, butterfly flower, and Indian posy.  It is highly attractive to nectaring butterflies who are drawn to its bright orange to yellowish, nectar-rich flowers. A. tuberosa is perfectly adapted to life in a home garden, staying in place with a long bloom season. Do not confuse this plant with the commonly called “butterfly bush,” which is the buddleia, or buddleia bush. Buddleia bush is native to China, and while its flowers do attract many butterflies, not one single butterfly in North America can use it as a host plant, a plant that will provide food for the emerging caterpillars.

Purple milkweed, Asclepias purpurescens, is another fine candidate for a home garden. The deeply purple flowers bloom in late spring, early summer, borne on one foot stems. Here is a post with lovely photos featuring this beauty, Purple Milkweed.

Finally, Asclepius incarnata, is the one known as swamp milkweed. It has more narrow, pointed leaves than most, and its seed pods mirror that shape. They have a branching structure, with showy red-pink flowers. They prefer moist conditions as you might guess, and can become somewhat decimated by summer’s end. This is another milkweed with many common names; it seems that the more widespread the plant, the more names become attached to it. This milkweed comes highly recommended by many as a garden plant, although in some cases it may colonize and spread. It seems to be a variable characteristic.

Asclepias tuberosa, butterfly weed

Asclepias tuberosa at Gulf Branch Park, Arlington, VA

 

Planting a variety of milkweeds is the best plan, it gives the biggest bloom display, of course, and also provides food and nectar for the greatest span of needs over the longest time, by the Monarchs and other insects who use them. Search your native plant sales this spring for good regional choices. Here is a link replete with more resources for helping the monarch,  Gardening for Monarchs,  including how to create a monarch way station.

Be a part of the solution, let your yard or community space be the place where that tired monarch finally lands. Then I won’t have to cry anymore, and neither will you.

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Milkweed. It’s not a weed. Plant milkweed to help save Monarchs.

© 2013 – 2014, Suzanne Dingwell. All rights reserved. This article is the property of Native Plants and Wildlife Gardens. We have received many requests to reprint our work. Our policy is that you are free to use a short excerpt which must give proper credit to the author, and must include a link back to the original post on our site. Please use the contact form above if you have any questions.

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Comments

  1. says

    Sullivant’s milkweed is great! Looks like syriaca but is a VERY slow grower. More people need to plant that one! It’s in my top 3 here in Nebraska for egg attraction, along with incarnata at #1 and purpurascens #2 (in a small 2,000′ garden). It’s about HABITAT! Going to preach it in a presentation in one hour!
    Benjamin Vogt recently posted..Snow Geese, Sandhill Cranes, Sunset

    • says

      We had to cut our Silver Maple down, but I planted Milkweeds and they grew well. I had Monarchs coming and counted 16 caterpillars on one day! Some didn’t make it. Others I saw go for lift off. I am going to increase Milkweeds.
      Melanie

      • Suzanne Dingwell says

        Melanie, good for you! Change is part of gardening, and the new space for sun will be good for the milkweed and greatly appreciated by the Monarchs, too.

  2. says

    Lovely post Suzanne. A word of caution about an insidious an milkweed wannabe that is also impacting the Monarch population…dog strangling vine (Cynanchum rossicum and C. louiseae). Monarch butterfly mistakenly lay eggs on this Eurasian invasive plant but their larvae are unable to survive. Plant more natives and control invasives.

  3. says

    I agree with Benjamin about Sullivant’s milkweed! A beautiful milkweed with many of the great characteristics of common milkweed, but not its thuggishness.

    I’ve noticed that some milkweeds don’t seem to attract many monarch caterpillars (green antelopehorn, Asclepias viridis, for example). I have it in great abundance in my natural areas, but rarely see a monarch caterpillar on it. Is there any information on which milkweed species that monarchs seem to prefer as larval foods?
    Cynthia Abbott (Gaia gardener) recently posted..Winter Wonderland

    • says

      Cynthia, Thanks for your comment; I will definitely search Sullivant’s out next time I am out visiting relatives in the mid-west! It is hard to answer your question about what Monarch’s prefer because there is so much variation in when local populations bloom and when the Monarchs are present in large numbers. It can also depend on soil conditions and local weather. The best advice is to keep planting a wide variety, and if you learn anything useful, please share it with us!
      sue dingwell recently posted..The Colors of Winter

  4. says

    I need to get to the Smithsonian to see that film! Sounds like a wonderful idea for spring break! The A. tuberosa and A. incarnata both do well for me. I also have 1 tiny A. syriaca that has survived for about 4 yrs…but just barely. It hasn’t shown signs of spreading let alone even ‘taking off’. Perhaps it’s been busy forming its underground rhizomes and is going to sneak up on me?! I’ve been thinking about pulling the 1 sprout it sends up before suddenly a whole colony of it shows up all over my gardens. I also have an A. exaltata plant which produces beautiful pendulous white blooms…it’s called Poke Milkweed. It’s done well in one little area and is very pretty. My experience with A. purpurescens is that it died…in all 3 locations I placed it in around the yard…sadly.

    • says

      Jan, definitely go in and see the film on the gigantic screen at the Smithsonian; even non-plant people will find it enjoyable. I’m not really a big 3-D fan, but the effect of the Monarchs floating out over the audience is really spectacular.

      It has been interesting to read about the variation of vigor among the milkweed species within site specific gardens. It was a comment on the VNPS FB page absolutely slamming A. syriaca for being a monster in the garden that got this whole ball rolling for me. I guess plants are just like people, they bloom where they are happy! Thanks for your comment!
      sue dingwell recently posted..The Colors of Winter

    • Virginia Duffield says

      On our savanna and elsewhere in Central Missouri, purple milkweed grows in the dripline of oak trees and on pretty dry sites. The ones we have are native to the site, we did not plant them. They also appear to be a bit toxic to one another, with just a few growing here and there.

      • says

        Virginia, how wonderful that you have the lovely purple milkweed growing naturally on your site. The plants are not toxic to each other, they are just competing for limited resources, sun and moisture, under the tree. You could collect seed in the fall and plant the seeds in a new place with favorable conditions the next spring. Xerces.org has plenty of information to help you find success with that project. Thanks for your comment and enjoy those purples, one of my favorites!

  5. Dee says

    It’s very true about all of the different names Milkweed has! I have Tuberosa, Swamp & Incarnata Milkweed planted in my butterfly garden. A few days after I planted the Tuberosa last year I had 4 cats crawling on them. I’ll be planting Whorled or Horsetail Milkweed. It’s white & about the same height as Tuberosa. I’m going to interplant them in the border this summer. I’m also planting Milkmaid, I’m not sure of the latin name.
    I’ll be applying for national & international certification as a Monarch Way Station. This is all being done in the yard, & I live in a mobile home park! This goes to show to show that we can all make a difference, even those of us living in a small space!
    I am having a very difficult time starting Tropical Milkweed from seed. I tried a seed start kit, wiped off the moisture, & still got damping off. I soaked them over night no germination. I planted them without soaking, & still no germination. All have been on a seed heat mat. I planted several seeds, which are actually flakes, they’re under a grow light, & still no luck with germination! What am I doing wrong? I appreciate any feedback on this! I’m in Chicago, are brutal winters kill off the tropical Milkweed so they are not invasive in my area.

    Please visit my butterfly garden at https://www.facebook.com/MyButterflyGarden?ref=hl

    • Connie in Bixby, OK says

      Dee — I have a few suggestions re starting tropical from seeds. I’ve learned that the little brown peat pots hold too much moisture, plants look fine and in one day DEAD. The little peat pods (hard disks in white ‘fabric’ that you wet and fluff up) are better, if watered every day. I use the black plastic tray with lid to germinate, no heating pad. Once 2″ tall, put tray in a sunny window, no lid. You can make chamomile tea and apply by misting if concerned with damping off. Take cuttings in the Fall and plant in pots to overwinter inside. Bigger plants in spring and no seeds to start :)

    • Virginia Duffield says

      You need to plant the seed shortly after it is taken from the plant. I plant mine in pots and just shove them under bushes in the fall and let mother nature do her worst. In March I either bring them inside or just move them to an east-facing open porch and water. Viola! Milkweed seedlings. I think they need to be cold and wet for a long time to germinate.

  6. Jennifer Soles says

    Great article and great pictures too, Sue! When I saw the one with the large boulder I suddenly realized -hey, many of these pics were taken in our garden! I was really proud that at only 3 years old, it’s helping spread the word about native plants. Everyone is welcome to visit – you’ll see it opposite our driveway at the corner of Military Rd and 36th St.
    Jennifer
    Gulf Branch Nature Center
    3608 Military Rd
    Arlington, VA 22207

    • sue dingwell says

      Jennifer, thank you, and I really should have mentioned your fabulous pollinator garden where indeed several of the pictures were taken. It is a great place to go and see what many of the best pollinator plants look like: several milkweeds, mountain mint, coreopsis, baptisia, liatris, joe pye weed, and Indian hemp all come to mind. Not to mention the pollinators and birds that are attracted there,
      and last but not least, the knowledgeable and generous leading light of the park, which would be you!

  7. says

    Sue, thank you for such an informative piece on the plight of the Monarch. You are doing a great service by sharing this message. I plan to spread your message far and wide and add milkweed to my own garden. Looking forward to being part of the solution!!!

  8. says

    Suzanne, I first began my long love affair with monarchs nearly thirty years ago . . . I think it was just because there were so many caterpillars in my gardens and I could observe their magical metamorphosis with my then child son . . . now a man son with his own child son. I had to fly to their overwinter grounds to see them by the thousands too. I am always sharing my common milkweed seeds with friends but maybe I should start passing them out at the farmer’s markets I go to . . . alerting folks to their habits. Great article about such an important topic. The droughts, gmo’s and pesticides are reeking havoc on our beloved butterflies and I can understand your teary eyes when seeing the film Flight of Butterflies. Monarchs have been flying for millions of years and I truly hope they will figure out how to survive our assaults on this green earth. Our shout outs are all good and this piece adds to the very important educational aspect of raising awareness to their plight.
    Carol Duke recently posted..Flower Hill Farm Butterflies of 2012 ~ Red Admiral

  9. Karl Zedell says

    I hate to be curmudgeonly but I have that great list of milkweed for Florida, but not which counties each cultivar may grow in. I live in Jacksonville in far North Florida and what grows here is waaaaay different that what grows in Miami. Any help there?

    • sue dingwell says

      Karl, please join your Florida Native Plant Society! But even before that, you can find out exactly what lives near you on their excellent website FNPS.org

      If you check out this link, under their ‘Resources’ option on the menu bar, you can search specific plants quite easily. https://www.fnps.org/plants

      Thanks for planting milkweeds!

  10. laura mcdonald says

    the link to the washington post article does not work. could you please reference the date? i’d love to read it.

    thanks so much!

  11. says

    Thanks for pointing out some great native milkweeds, Sue! Now I just wish that people would forego the scarlet milkweed (Asclepias curassavica) in their attempts to help the monarchs and take your advice and feed them properly with good ol American made milkweed!
    Loret recently posted..Baby Sings the Blues

  12. says

    Within the state of TX, there are many native types of milkweed listed. Are all the ones listed acceptable for any part of TX? If not, how do we determine what type of milkweed per county? Thanks!

  13. JoBeth Speyer says

    Thank you for all the fascinating advice on milkweed planting. Do you have advice for protecting the caterpillars from predators, particularly lizards. We are in Miami, and we have had success with attracting Monarchs and have had many caterpillars grow to a good size, only to disappear, probably eaten by the very aggressive lizards we’ve spotted on and around the plants.
    Thanks!

    • says

      JoBeth, I lived in Florida for many years. The short answer is no, there is not a practical way to keep your monarch eggs from becoming someone’s dinner. The only way to be certain they reach adulthood is to raise them inside and release. Fortunately in Florida there are usually a lot of options for semi-enclosed areas that lend themselves well the project. Monarch Watch offers the following advice on hand-rearing: http://www.monarchwatch.org/rear/
      Before you start in, though, you might want to use some record-keeping to see if it is really necessary. Best of luck and thank you so much for caring!
      suzanne dingwell recently posted..Book Review: POLLINATORS of NATIVE PLANTS, By Heather Holm

  14. gerry bissi says

    Sue,

    Can milkweed be grown on top of a building as a living roof? The Ford Dearborn Assembly Plant has a living roof with some kind of plant sutiable for the purpose. Ford is now thinking of planting on top of World Headquarters a living roof. If milkweed can do the same thing that the plants on the assembly plant roof, maybe you can ask Bill Ford to plant milkweed on World Headquarters and get a bouns use for the butterflies.

  15. Jim Price says

    Like first-commenter Benjamin Vogt, I am on a mission to promote Sullivant’s milkweed above all others, at least in its native Midwest (the prairie province). There are many solid reasons, but here’s the one I think is most important in terms of monarch conservation: A study published last year revealed that there is a science to monarch egg-laying preference. Given the choice, they will prefer to lay on species that are higher in cardiac glycoside toxicity (and there is a great range in toxicity among the many milkweed species). Higher toxicity host species actually help them to shed the damaging Oe protozoan parasite, which seems to be on the increase in both wild and reared populations. Unfortunately, common milkweed and the two most commonly planted milkweeds – tuberosa and incarnata – all reside at the low end of the toxicity scale. Sullivant’s, or prairie milkweed, lives at the middle-high end of the scale; hence, it offers monarchs better protection. I agree that the best policy is to plant a diversity of species, but it may in fact be ultimately counterproductive to monarch conservation to plant the three most common species, all low in toxins, rather than the one high-toxicity species. Sullivant’s seeds and plants are available from many native plant nurseries.

  16. Colleen says

    As a Butterfly lover I grow all kinds of milkweeds.
    I have a milkweed plant that produces white flowers, thin leaves, and
    produces seeds in a fascinating bubble. It attacts Monarchs as well
    as other butterflies. Monarchs lay eggs and little ones eat it.
    My question is : Why doesn’t the mother plant seem to survive after seeding
    like the other milkweeds do?. Am I doing something wrong? I have to replant seeds. In other words how do I successfully grow it?

    • Jim Price says

      Sounds like you’re growing Gomphocarpus physocarpus (swan plant), which is a tropical milkweed native to Africa. It cannot survive outdoors as a perennial in most of the United States, so it must be grown as an annual from seed (or wintered over in a heated greenhouse). You’re not doing anything wrong; in fact, by collecting the seed and starting new plants, you’re doing it right.

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  1. […] week I took three friends on a wildflower walk. Until I explained it to them, they had no idea that butterflies could not lay their eggs on any plant in the field. So we know that our message needs to be shared more widely; we need to […]

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