Do the wing thing!
– Bart Simpson
We saw probably the last monarch butterfly of the season weekend before last. Monarchs migrate south when the weather turns cooler — you may have seen the recent item about a monarch cloud confusing weather radar in Missouri. Despite radar-confounding swarms, though, monarchs are “near threatened” as a species, meaning they are at risk.
Habitat loss is the major issue. While many flowers provide nectar, monarchs can only use milkweed as a host plant for eggs, so no milkweed, no new butterflies. Most people see milkweed as a weed (it’s right there in the name!), with the result that there are far fewer host plants than when it grew everywhere wild. Between that and other stresses, it’s tough out there for a butterfly.
That’s all a shame, because thing one, milkweed is easy to grow, and thing two, it’s pretty!
On the easy-to-grow front, milkweed is a prime candidate for winter sowing. There could NOT be an easier way to start plants for the spring.
All you need are seeds (and dirt and a milk jug). Lots of places want you to have milkweed seeds:
- Monarch Watch Milkweed Market offers flats of milkweed seedlings appropriate to your local climate.
- The Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation (that’s a mouthful) has a Milkweed Seed Finder page.
- Live Monarch offers free milkweed seeds and low-priced seedlings (but if you can afford it, make a contribution when you order).
- Or simply buy seeds for around $3/pack–Prairie Moon Nursery, Burpee, Swallowtail Garden Seeds. You can even search for seeds on Amazon and eBay.
There are many different milkweed (Latin name: asclepias) varieties. Monarch Joint Venture has a terrific guide showing which milkweeds grow best where. We mainly grow Swamp Milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) and Butterfly Weed (Asclepias tuberosa), although I started some Common Milkweed this year (the seedlings above, Asclepias syriaca) that will be well-established next year.
All varieties are attractive plants. Swamp Milkweed is about a meter tall and very upright, good for the back of the border. It’s easy to care for, and has a long bloom season, with these beautiful pink flower clusters.
Butterfly Weed, on the other hand, is a shorter variety, maybe about a foot tall. It makes an excellent screen plant around the feet of clematis vines. I’ve seen it marketed as “Butterfly Flower” and “Orange Glory Flower” but it’s still a milkweed variety. Orange is my favorite, but it is also sold in a range of flower colors.
Keep in mind, these are host plants, so if you see caterpillar bite marks on leaves, that just means you are doing it right!
All the milkweeds are versatile and easy-care plants that lend themselves to any type of garden. If you garden in North America, find a variety you like and plant a few. Monarchs are expert at finding milkweed — you will be rewarded by many visits. Plus, it just feels good helping a friend in need.