Bye-Bye, Butterfly

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.

milkweed monarch full

Monarch on milkweed flowers

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.

Buddleia is good for nectar, but not for eggs

Buddleia is good for nectar, but not for eggs

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.

Milkweed (and weed-weed) seedlings from 2014 winter sowing

Milkweed (and weed-weed) seedlings from 2014 winter sowing

All you need are seeds (and dirt and a milk jug). Lots of places want you to have milkweed seeds:

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.

Monarch on Swamp Milkweed

Monarch on Swamp Milkweed

Bees like it too!

Bees like it too!

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.

Monarch butterfly on butterfly weed. Photo by Randy Loftus, USFWS

Monarch butterfly on butterfly weed (Randy Loftus, USFWS)


Orange butterfly weed in the middle, planted in front of the purple clematis

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.

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