Milkweed 101! (New Guide for 2021)
Do you want to learn more about milkweed?
Then you have come to the right place! I’ve got lots of info to tell you about this incredible native plant, so let’s dig right in.
I’ve organized this post into the following sections:
Why should you grow milkweed? (3 reasons!)
- 4 fun facts about milkweed!
Without further ado, let’s get started!
What is Milkweed?
Now I know a lot of you are probably asking,
“Scott, why should I care about a weed?”
First, you need to know that milkweed is not actually a weed or a plant you should avoid. Rather, it is a beautiful flowering plant that attracts many butterflies, bees, and other insects. Milkweed also produces a latex or milky-white substance that doesn’t taste very good. You’ll notice the white liquid oozing out whenever the stem is broken.
Milkweed belongs to the Asclepias genus. There are many species of milkweed in North America (approximately 73!), but the one you’re most likely to encounter is Asclepias syriaca. It’s better known as Common Milkweed and can be found in most areas east of the Rocky Mountains. Common Milkweed is also commonly called a few other names, including silkweed, Common Milkweed, Silky Swallow-Wort, and Virginia Silkweed.
When in bloom, milkweed produces tiny clusters of pink, lavender, orange, white, or yellow blossoms.
The exact color depends on the specific milkweed species. The flowers grow on stems that are between two and four feet high. The stems contain large, teardrop-shaped leaves on alternating sides.
In the fall, milkweed plants develop elongated green pods, which will eventually turn brown. The pods themselves are quite remarkable, as you will see later.
Along with seeds, the brown pods hold loads of silky material, which is known as floss. The floss resembles thin white strands of silk and is fluffy and soft.
Why Should You Grow Milkweed?
Are you curious as to why you should grow milkweed? Here are three reasons I grow it in my garden.
1. The survival of Monarch Butterflies depends on milkweed!
A female Monarch butterfly will only lay her eggs on milkweed.
That’s because the caterpillars of a Monarch butterfly will ONLY eat the leaves of milkweed plants. So without milkweed, there would be no more Monarch butterflies. I love finding caterpillars on our milkweed plants towards the later part of late spring and summer. My kids have a blast raising them, watching them go from caterpillar to chrysalis to butterfly!
But there are other reasons to have milkweed than just for Monarch caterpillars. The beautiful flowers are full of nectar, which many butterflies (including Monarchs), bees, and other native pollinators love visiting!
Here are some other species you may observe on your milkweed plants: Large milkweed bugs, Unexpect Cycnia Moth caterpillar, Banded Tussock Moth, Great Golden Digger Wasp, Milkweed Tussock Moth caterpillars, and Tiny Buck’s Plume Moths, just to name a few!
Milkweed Tussock Moth caterpillar
Milkweed is native to North America, and I recommend using only native plants in your backyard. The reason is that native plants and insects evolved in tandem with each other. When you use plants that originate from Asia, the bugs around your home won’t be attracted to them. You may want a backyard devoid of life, but I am trying to create a healthy ecosystem, which attracts as many butterflies, birds, and bugs as possible.
2. Deer do not like the taste.
Can you believe it’s actually true?
There are plants that deer won’t eat or destroy!
I know that I get incredibly frustrated each summer when I will wake up to find that deer have eaten a plant I have been working hard to grow. It has happened to everything from apple trees to sunflowers.
But deer don’t prefer the taste of milkweed!
Milkweed contains a poison known as cardiac glycoside, which makes it unpleasant for most insects and animals to eat, including deer!
One bite and the bitter taste will have them scrounging for other food. So if you are looking for a plant that you don’t have to worry about deer eating, then get some milkweed.
But what’s really interesting is that Monarch caterpillars, and a handful of other insects, have evolved to assimilate these milkweed toxins. As the caterpillars, and then the butterflies, absorb these toxins into their bodies, they become distasteful to most predators. What a fantastic adaptation!
3. It’s effortless to grow
Unlike a lot of other flowers, you can basically just plant milkweed and then forget about it.
In fact, the biggest problem many people face with milkweed is that it grows too well! It spreads using rhizomes, which are underground runners or roots. Milkweed plants also grow pods that break open and release the seeds (approximately 226 per pod), each one carried into the wind by a “parachute” of floss. After a few years, you may find that your milkweed has taken over too much space, and you need to thin it out.
Where To Find? How Do You Grow Milkweed?
Before I get started on how to grow milkweed, there’s one thing you must be aware of, and that is the fact that this plant is poisonous to dogs, cats, horses, goats, and other domestic animals. The risk of one of these animals ingesting milkweed is low since the plant is highly unpalatable. But the plant is extremely poisonous, and if it does happen, then you need to get to the vet AS SOON AS POSSIBLE.
With that in mind, choose a location where your animals can’t get access.
Ok, so now that we got that out of the way, let’s talk about how to obtain and grow milkweed. In general, there are THREE ways you can get milkweed for your yard.
1. Find wild milkweed and transplant.
This field is FULL of milkweed! Can you spot it?
Many varieties of milkweed grow in the wild. You can often find this plant in roadside ditches, open meadows, and fence rows.
Never dig up specimens without obtaining permission from the property owner first.
When removing milkweed from the wild, remember that it has a very long taproot, similar to a Purple Coneflower. You’ll need to get completely underneath it to ensure a healthy transplant. Because of the taproot, it is incredibly hard to transplant milkweed successfully.
2. Buy milkweed from a nursery.
Rather than transplanting milkweed, you may wish to purchase specimens from a local garden center. Fortunately, many places now carry many native plants, and I have had no problem finding different species of milkweed near my home.
But purchasing already established plants can get expensive. To protect your investment, it’s essential to plant your milkweed correctly and take proper care of it, or you risk it dying! Plants are fragile immediately after being planted somewhere new.
Here are some steps that I follow when planting milkweed, along with pretty much any other flower:
- Plan where you want to plant your milkweed. I like to place them where I think I want them in my garden, then walk away to see how it is going to look. Make sure to read the tag to leave enough space between plants! For reference, most milkweed species recommend spacing about 2 feet apart.
- Dig a hole. You want a hole that’s about 50% wider than the root ball and just as deep.
- Take the milkweed out of the container. I find it easiest to hit the sides of the pot to loosen the plant, then carefully slide it out. BE CAREFUL not to damage the plant while removing.
- Place the plant in the hole. The top of the root ball should be at the same level as the soil. If anything, place the top of the root ball about 1-2 inches above the top of the dirt. It’s common for a plant to sink a bit after planting, and you will also be adding mulch.
- Fill in soil and pat the dirt down firmly around the base. Add mulch to help preserve moisture. Milkweed shouldn’t require a lot of fertilizing. To help it thrive, add compost to your garden before planting.
- Water to help milkweed become established. Proper watering for milkweed is essential for it to thrive. These plants are fairly drought resistant, but they will need plenty of water as they are young and getting established. When watering, make sure you’re soaking the soil enough that the water is seeping down into the ground, and it’s not just the first inch that appears damp. To avoid evaporation, make sure to water in the early morning or evening.
3. Grow milkweed from seeds.
Alternatively, you can harvest seeds from established plants or purchase them from the Internet. Check Cost - Amazon
If you take your seeds directly off a milkweed plant, make sure to place the seeds in your refrigerator during winter or outside in your garage. This mimics the temperature changes in winter and tells your seeds that it is time for them to sprout next spring.
Once you have your seed, scatter and sow them in an open, sunny area and water lightly. In a few weeks, they will begin to germinate. You may also place seeds in tiny seed starter pots and then transplant later.
Be generous when scattering or sowing your seeds. Milkweed seeds have a surprisingly low germination rate of only around 5 to 10 percent. So if you want lots of milkweed plants, you will need to plant plenty of seeds.
Milkweed grows between 12 and 18 inches per year until reaching its full height. However, you will not notice blooms until the third year. So you should not be discouraged if your butterfly flower doesn’t blossom right away.
There are dozens of milkweed varieties that produce attractive blooms across North America. Which types you choose for your backyard depends on exactly where you live. I encourage you to talk to local experts, butterfly enthusiasts, and garden centers. But here are a few of the most popular species for you to consider.
*Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca):
This species is native to the eastern half of the United States and southern Canada. It’s one of the most common milkweeds you will find in the wild. It has a sweet scent that can be detected many feet away. It also grows aggressively, so you may need to rein it in on occasion.
*Butterfly Weed / Milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa):
This milkweed variety is drought-resistant can be found from Arizona to Maine. It produces beautiful, bright orange blossoms and therefore is sometimes referred to as Orange Milkweed. Butterflies will readily feed on the nectar, but it has been found that caterpillars do not prefer the leaves as a host plant compared to other milkweed species. The reason for this is that there are not enough toxins (cardiac glycoside), which help protect the caterpillars from predators.
Regardless, the orange flowers are one of my favorites, and many other types of butterflies readily feed on its nectar in addition to Monarchs.
Purple Milkweed (Asclepias purpurascens):
Also known as Purple Milkweed, it has reddish-purple blooms that appear in early to mid-summer. In the wild, Purple Milkweed can be found as far west as Texas, but primarily grows in the eastern and midwestern U.S. The gorgeous magenta flowers commonly get mistaken for an exotic ornamental. Many species of moths are also attracted to its blooms, in addition to butterflies.
California Milkweed (Asclepias California):
This plant is aptly named California Milkweed because it is native to California. However, it is hardy enough to grow in nearly any other state. It produces dark purple flowers that appear inside fuzzy, star-shaped leaves.
*Swamp Milkweed (Asclepias incarnate):
Known as Swamp Milkweed, this variety tolerates wet, soggy conditions very well. As such, it’s a great one to use near creek beds or wetlands. But it also thrives in well-drained soils of backyard gardens. I have lots of Swamp Milkweed growing in my backyard, and Monarchs seem strongly attracted to it!
White Milkweed (Asclepias variegata):
This variety produces tiny white flowers that somewhat resemble those of a snowball bush. Known as White Milkweed, it can tolerate partial shade as well as full sun.
*In case you were wondering, I have these milkweed species planted in my yard.*
A quick note about Tropical Milkweed:
One species you may come across is known as Tropical Milkweed (Asclepias curassavica). This plant has risen in popularity, both for its beauty and for the fact that Monarchs will readily feed on the nectar.
The problem is that Tropical Milkweed is not native to the United States, and doesn’t die back in temperate weather regions, like other milkweed species. Since the plant doesn’t completely die, it can cause a few problems. These issues include a nasty protozoan parasite, along with the fact that the plant may interfere with the butterfly migration and reproduction.
- To read about the potential problems with Tropical Milkweed, you can check out this informative article.
Common Pests & Diseases That Affect Milkweed
Here are a few pests and diseases you should watch for!
Monarch butterflies are not the only creatures that are drawn to milkweed. One bug that we see all the time on our milkweed is the creatively named Milkweed Bug.
As you have probably already guessed, the Milkweed Bug gets its name because it enjoys dining on milkweed. The nymphs resemble small beetles and have a red body with two black dots.
Adults, on the other hand, have an elongated body and somewhat resemble a grasshopper. Their bodies are either red or orange, with three distinct black markings along the thorax and abdomen.
The problem with these bugs is that they consume milkweed seeds and plant matter. These insects can damage a plant so severely that there is nothing left for your Monarch butterflies. Personally, I think that Milkweed Bugs are beautifully colored, and as long as there are only a few of them, then I don’t care if they are around. Watch out towards the end of the growing season in late summer or early fall, as I have found that these insects can become quite numerous and destructive then.
It’s often easier to prevent Milkweed Bugs than it is to get rid of them. In many cases, placing a mesh fabric over the top of your plants is enough to discourage these insects from coming.
Just be sure to rinse thoroughly as the residue may deter Monarchs.
Leaf damage from the larvae of a Leaf Miner.
Leaf miners are a type of insect whereby the larvae itself (rather than the adult insect) consumes the leaves of various plants. In particular, a leaf miner species known as the Milkweed Leaf Miner Fly (Liriomyza asclepiadis) is known to dine exclusively on the leaves of milkweed.
The larvae themselves often hang out on the underside of the leaves. As a result, you may not notice them until you see leaf damage.
As leaf miners chew their way through the leaves, they leave behind white lines or trails. If you notice this type of damage, remove the leaves, and this will typically eliminate your problem.
In case that doesn’t do the trick, you can always make a homemade solution using vegetable oil, dish soap, and water. The above video will show you how.
The Oleander Aphid is sometimes referred to as the Milkweed Aphid because this bug loves just about every species of milkweed! The list includes Common Milkweed, Swamp Milkweed, and even Tropical Milkweed.
The Oleander Aphid is a bright yellow bug with black appendages. It’s a very tiny insect, ranging anywhere from 1.5 to 2.5 mm in length. We usually find our milkweed plants start having these aphids problems towards the end of summer. My kids love inspecting the plants with me looking for them, and then knocking them to the ground!
Oleander Aphids will not necessarily kill your milkweed plants. However, they can affect seed production. When saving seeds, you will probably notice that a smaller-than-normal percentage will sprout the next season.
Plus, female Monarchs will avoid laying eggs on milkweed plants containing aphids.
Would you lay your eggs on a plant covered in this many aphids?
Spraying affected plants with a garden hose or spray bottle is often enough to eliminate Oleander Aphids. But if that doesn’t do the trick, try dabbing some isopropyl or rubbing alcohol directly onto the leaves.
Before using isopropyl alcohol, please remember that THIS IS TOXIC TO MONARCHS. So NEVER use this method on plants where a Monarch butterfly has already laid her eggs.
Monarch caterpillars have been known to peacefully exist with aphids. So if a caterpillar has already hatched and then your plant develops aphids, leave them be.
With a name like weevil, this bug HAS to be problematic!
Rhyssomatus lineaticollis, better known as the Milkweed Weevil, and is a small, triangular-shaped black bug that can cause significant leaf damage. Milkweed plants with weevil damage may appear to have broken stems, with blooms and leaves that sag or droop.
If you have only a few weevils, you can flick them by hand into a bucket of soapy water. Spraying the leaves with a homemade solution of dish soap and water is sometimes effective, as well. Or an insecticide soap should work.
Regardless of the pest you have, try to use only natural methods to remove them whenever possible.
Aside from the above pests, there aren’t any diseases to worry about!
FOUR Fun Facts About Milkweed
Fact #1: Butterfly Weed and Butterfly Bush are NOT the Same Things!
While you are out shopping for plants, you may encounter a type of plant called a Butterfly Bush (Buddleja).
If so, remember that Butterfly Bush is NOT the same thing as Butterfly Weed.
Although a Butterfly Bush has lots of nectar for butterflies, only Butterfly Weed will specifically help Monarch caterpillars. So if you are trying to help the Monarch, be sure you are choosing a species of milkweed, and not a non-native plant, such as Butterfly Bush.
Fact #2: Milkweed Played an Important Role in World War II.
During World War II, Japanese forces gained control of the Dutch East Indies. As a result, the United States lost a crucial source of materials for stuffing life preservers.
In response to the shortage, the U.S. government pleaded with citizens to gather milkweed pods from wild plants. School children were enlisted in the effort, and eventually, two million pounds of material was collected.
This was enough to fill more than 1.2 million life jackets for U.S. Sailors, Airmen, and Marines.
Fact #3: Its Sap is Mildly Toxic.
Milkweed contains phytochemicals known as cardiac glycosides, which may be poisonous to humans.
In addition, its milky sap contains irritants that can aggravate certain skin conditions. You should always wear gloves while handling milkweed, and avoid ingesting it, getting it onto your skin or into your eyes. Be sure to wash your hands afterward!
Milkweed’s toxicity is a huge benefit to the Monarch butterfly, which has an immunity to the poison. Its predators, on the other hand, do not. As a result, most birds and other creatures will leave the butterfly alone.
Fact #4: You can eat milkweed.
But you just got through telling me that milkweed is poisonous. What do you mean I can eat it?
Yes, it’s true that milkweed is poisonous. However, if you prepare the plant properly, you can remove the toxins and have yourself a delicious dinner!
Before harvesting, make sure you have a Common Milkweed plant and not dogbane or Butterfly Weed. Those plants closely resemble Common Milkweed, but CAN NOT BE EATEN.
Seriously, before you try this, you need to become an expert at identifying milkweed species apart!
Boil, parboil, or pan fry the leaves, stalks, flowers, or pods thoroughly to remove toxins and render them safe to eat. Add some butter, salt, or olive oil to give your milkweed a little flavor.
If you want more information on how to gather and prepare milkweed, this video offers some great information.
Although there are many benefits to growing Common Milkweed, it’s a plant that is often overlooked by many gardeners. Hopefully, this article will put to rest any misconceptions you may have about this plant and encourage you to add some to your garden.
Now that you know more about milkweed, are you more inclined to plant some?
Or do you have already have milkweed growing in your garden?
Either way, I’d love for you to tell me more about it. Add a note in the comment section and let me know where your milkweed is growing and which variety you see butterflies attracted towards it the most.
I look forward to hearing from you.