If you’re a homesteader, then you know the importance of growing your own food. But what about plants that can help support your local ecosystem?
Milkweed is one such plant, and it’s worth growing even if you don’t have a lot of space.
Here are a few reasons why milkweed is so important, and why you should add it to your garden this year.
Table of Contents:
What is Milkweed?
First and foremost, milkweed is a valuable garden plant. But what exactly is it?
This plant, once thought to be an annoying weed that just got in the way of cultivating other plants, is now understood to be one of the most beneficial plants out there.
There are multiple varieties out there, including:
- Butterfly Milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa) – this is one of the best for home gardens
- Pink Milkweed (Asclepias incarnata)
- Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca)
- Whorled Milkweed (Asclepias verticillata)
- Prairie Milkweed (Asclepias sullivantii)
- Spider Milkweed (Asclepias viridis)
- Showy Milkweed (Asclepias speciosa)
- Tall Green Milkweed (Asclepias hirtella)
The most popular types of milkweed are pink milkweed (sometimes referred to as swamp milkweed) and again, butterfly milkweed, also known as butterfly weed.
These two varieties of milkweed are so popular because they produce the showiest, most attractive flowers. That makes them valuable for home gardeners.
Plus, these two have the strongest nectar, meaning they are the most attractive to butterflies.
Milkweed can be found in just about every growing zone in the United States, though common milkweed, one of the best for butterflies, grows only in USDA zones 4-9.
Sadly, this plant is rapidly disappearing around the world. That’s due to the destruction of meadows for commercial building and from widespread pesticide use.
It’s led to a decline of nearly 90% of monarch butterfly populations in the last 20 years alone. Growing milkweed is a great way to do your part and help get these numbers back up.
If you’re thinking about growing milkweed, whether for butterflies or just for the sheer beauty of the plant, grow several strands and let the plants spread on their own. It will fill in large sunny spots quite well!
Reasons to Grow It
Thinking about growing milkweed? Here are a few reasons why you should do it.
It Feeds Monarchs
Milkweed is most famous for its ability to feed monarch butterflies. This is regardless of the variety you choose to grow.
All types of milkweed produce a sticky sap that appears whenever leaves or stems are broken.
The irony of the sap is that it is toxic to animals when consumed in large quantities – it can make birds and other small species extremely sick.
However, it’s crucial for the survival of the monarch butterfly. Monarchs will only eat milkweed foliage when they are in their caterpillar form.
The butterflies, therefore, lay their eggs on milkweed plants after eating the nectar in the flowers. When the eggs hatch, the caterpillars will feed primarily on the milkweed.
Here, they receive both sustenance and safety, since predators will avoid the plant and the caterpillars alike. Remember – toxic sap!
Milkweed is Vital in Urban Areas
Lots of gardeners grow milkweed in the city (and you should, too!). It is easy to grow here and provides additional benefits.
In fact, if you live in a city or suburb, you should consider growing milkweed here because it is one of the best places to grow it. Butterflies need places to lay their eggs and to eat regardless of whether they live in cities or the countryside.
Too many butterflies die each year because they find themselves trapped in cities. Here, there are few other host plants that can provide them with the nectar they need – so growing even just one or two milkweed plants can be beneficial in providing a haven for nearby butterflies.
It’s the Best Plant You Can Choose
Lots of gardeners choose to plant butterfly weeds in the garden, not even realizing that this is the same thing as milkweed. Butterfly weed, again, is a type of milkweed!
These plants are not only beneficial for butterflies but also have attractive orange flowers, making them a fixture in just about every cottage garden.
If you’re trying to come up with ideas for plants to grow in your garden, butterfly weed is the best option, especially if you’re comparing it to another popular option – butterfly bush.
Although butterfly bush, as the name implies, also attracts butterflies, it is not the very best choice. It provides food for butterflies but does not give them a place to lay their eggs.
So unless there are other host plants nearby, monarchs can’t use butterfly bushes as a “breeding ground”.
As mentioned above, milkweed is also relatively drought-tolerant.
If you live in a particularly dry climate, consider growing common milkweed, or Asclepias syriaca. This plant is the most drought-tolerant out of all of these pieces.
It doesn’t have flowers that are as large or as showy as some of the other varieties, but it is still an incredibly strong plant that attracts butterflies and provides them with the shelter they need.
Common milkweed is so tough that it can even be grown in areas that withstand a heavy beating – like along roadsides.
This plant does get to be quite tall, so it’s a better plant for the background than the foreground.
Don’t plant it in containers or transplant it – it has a six-foot taproot, that, when severed, will kill the plant.
Is Milkweed Invasive?
Some people are hesitant to grow milkweed because they worry that its fast-spreading nature will cause it to take over their gardens.
Although milkweed does grow rapidly, if you grow a plant that is native to your area, it is not technically invasive.
That said, it does spread aggressively and can take over any area in which it is planted. Be mindful of the spot you’re growing it in and make sure it’s not too close to other plants.
What Type of Milkweed Should I Grow?
As you’ve likely inferred from reading the above post, there are all kinds of milkweed varieties you can choose from. There’s milkweed out there for everyone!
If you have a teensy tiny garden, don’t be fooled into thinking you don’t have enough space for milkweed. There are special varieties you can grow!
One such example is swamp milkweed, or pink milkweed. It does not have to be grown in a wet location and can survive with minimal watering (though of course, it will do best with moisture).
Swamp milkweed is also valuable for growing in small spaces. Although it can grow to heights of five feet tall when left untouched, you can control its growth simply by pinching it back.
This is a technique that involves cutting the stems of a plant down several weeks before it flowers, resulting in a shorter, bushier plant.
In addition to the varieties mentioned above, there are a few others you might consider growing.
Let’s take a closer look at below.
1. Prairie Milkweed
Another common variety of milkweed is prairie milkweed. It grows best in moist areas, like wet meadows.
It is popular for birds and butterflies alike and is not to be confused with another kind of prairie milkweed we’ll discuss in more detail below. This milkweed has the scientific name Asclepias sullivantii.
2. Spider Milkweed
This type of milkweed is sometimes referred to as green milkweed (not to be confused with tall green milkweed).
It has unique leaf margins that look like waves, along with white flowers that can be tinged with purple or pink. It prefers dry soils and open areas (like meadows) and frequently grows naturally along roadsides.
3. Showy Milkweed
Showy milkweed is one of the best options for the home garden, since it has eye-catching flowers in tight balls. It blooms in summer and grows best in small meadows.
4. Tall Green Milkweed
This plant is sometimes referred to as prairie milkweed as well, but it goes by a different scientific name – Asclepias hirtella.
Blooming all summer, from May until August, it is small, only reaching about three feet tall. It’s not used as often in gardens but can be part of a native wildflower garden. It’s beneficial not just for butterflies but also for bees.
5. Whorled Milkweed
Whorled milkweed has leaves that are arranged in a dense circle, hence the name. The flowers can be white or green, but are arranged in flat-topped clusters, just like Queen Anne’s Lace.
It grows well in sandy soil, as soil that doesn’t drain well can cause the plant to develop weak, flimsy stems that don’t support the rest of the plant.
Choosing the Right Milkweed
If you want to do your part in supporting local butterfly populations, make sure you choose a variety of milkweed that will support them the best. Here is a quick guide to which kinds of milkweed to grow depending on where you live:
- Northeast and Midwest US: common milkweed, butterfly week, poke milkweed, whorled milkweed, swamp milkweed
- California: Mexican whorled milkweed, desert milkweed, showy milkweed, California milkweed, wooly pod milkweed, heartleaf milkweed
- Arizona: butterfly weed, rush milkweed, Arizona milkweed, antelope horns milkweed
- Southeast US: butterfly weed, aquatic milkweed, whorled milkweed, white milkweed, sandhill/pinewoods milkweed
- South Central US: green antelope horn milkweed, zizotes milkweed, antelope horns milkweed
- Western US (minus Arizona and California): Mexican whorled milkweed, showy milkweed
How to Plant Milkweed
Now that you know all the reasons to grow milkweed, here are a few quick tips to help you plant it.
First, choose the right milkweed for your landscape. The planting recommendations will vary slightly depending on which variety you’ve chosen.
In general, most types of milkweed require lots of diffuse light, so grow these plants in full sun.
The ideal soil type will be dry to moist, depending on the specific variety you’re growing. It should have a mostly neutral pH.
These plants tend to develop large, deep systems of taproots, so transplanting is not a good idea. You can plant either in the spring or fall.
If you purchase started milkweed plants, they may arrive in a dormant state with no green leaves. After planting, you’ll find that the plant begins to put on new growth as the soil warms.
Be patient, though, since milkweed can be slower to “wake up” than other plants in your garden.
You don’t have to do much for your milkweed plant when it’s in this dormant stage – just make sure you don’t overwater it.
Starting Milkweed from Seed
If you prefer to start milkweed from seed, do so in the fall. This will eliminate the need for you to cold-stratify the seeds, which you’ll have to do if you start your seeds in the spring.
If you do start in the spring, cold stratification is essential. Milkweed seeds are genetically programmed to delay germination until they have been exposed to cold winter temperatures, then rising temperatures in the spring. If you plan in the fall, this process happens naturally.
If you’re starting in the spring (or growing in a warmer zone without cold winter temperatures), you can cold-stratify your seeds in the refrigerator.
To do this, put your seeds on a damp paper towel inside a zippered bag. Put it in the refrigerator for three to six weeks. Label the seeds, then take them out when it’s time to plant.
Plant your seeds in peat pots. Fill them three-quarters full with potting soil, then add water until the soil is damp. Put two seeds in each pot. Cover with a quarter-inch of soil.
Water again, then put the seeds in a sunny windowsill or under a grow light. The seeds should germinate within two weeks of planting.
The seedlings will need lots of warmth and sun to grow, so make sure you keep them on a heat mat and in lots of sun.
When the weather is warm enough to plant, put the peat pots directly in the ground. Milkweed roots are very sensitive and vulnerable to transplant shock.
In some dry climates, the milkweed plant might suffer some shock at planting, even if you’re transplanting in peat pots. It might lose all of its leaves. Don’t panic – these will grow back.
The best time to transplant is when the plant is no more than three inches tall and once the danger of frost has passed.
Where to Get Milkweed
You can buy milkweed plants or seeds from the most reputable nurseries and online retailers that specialize in doing so.
If you’re interested in planting milkweed at a school or hospital (as well as other qualifying locations) you can also contact Monarch Watch.
Monarch Watch is an organization that accepts donations of milkweed seed from all around the country, then distributes milkweed ready to be planted in flats. Schools and nonprofits qualify for free flats, in many cases.
Do you have milkweed seeds that you’re willing to donate? You can donate them to Monarch Watch to support their mission, too.
Caring for Milkweed Plants
Water well after planting milkweed seeds or transplants. Once the plants are established, you shouldn’t have to provide much care at all.
If you are growing your plants in a moist environment (as required for swamp milkweed varieties), you shouldn’t have to water. Milkweed requires no fertilization and performs just fine in poor soils.
The key to being successful in caring for milkweed plants is to transplant them as soon as they are ready. Minimize the time they spend growing in a pot. Otherwise, you’ll only have to water during an extremely dry spell.
You can choose to mulch around your milkweed plants to control weeds. Just be mindful that varieties that prefer drier soil, like butterfly weed, might not appreciate the moisture-retaining qualities of the mulch.
You also don’t need to worry about trimming or pruning your plants. Since milkweed has sturdy stems, you also don’t need to stake.
Milkweed naturally sprawls and spreads over time. There’s no need to divide and transplant to get new plants – it will reseed on its own! Milkweed is truly one of the easiest and most prolific plants you can grow.
One note of caution, though – when handling milkweed, be careful about doing so and always wear gloves. The milky sap can cause skin or eye irritation.
When you plant your milkweed, be mindful of where you’re positioning it, since the sap can be toxic to pets and livestock.
Pests and Diseases
There are very few diseases and pests that affect mature milkweed. Aphids and whiteflies can occasionally overrun the plants, with the latter being especially problematic if you’re growing milkweed indoors.
To get rid of these pests, just use a spray of water from the garden hose. Just be careful when spraying mature plants – these might have clusters of monarch eggs on them, which you don’t want to damage. You can move the larvae to a clean place before spraying, then put them back on the plant.
Occasionally, milkweed plants might suffer from fungal diseases like leaf spot or root rot. These are almost always caused b y overwatering or poorly-draining soils.
Check your watering technique and see if you can cut back on how much moisture you’re provided to your plants.
Can You Eat Milkweed?
There are really only two species of milkweed that are good for eating: showy milkweed and common milkweed. But yes! You can eat milkweed. More details below.
Harvesting and Foraging For Milkweed
You can harvest young milkweed flower buds, ideally when they’re tightly clustered and are green to slightly flushed with pink.
The key to finding the right time to harvest is in doing so before the plants are mature enough for humans.
Monarchs eat pods that are not safe to eat for humans – we need to eat it before that stage. If you see monarchs on the plant, leave it alone.
Don’t worry about killing the plant when you harvest. Even if you completely mow down a milkweed plant, it should continue to grow – thanks to that strong taproot we mentioned earlier.
That said, you should try not to totally decimate the plants he harvest. Only harvest from healthy colonies and only take what you need.
Just harvest a few tender pods. Make sure you cook it first, too. Milkweed, when raw, is toxic, but you can get rid of cardiac glycosides and other dangerous compounds by cooking.
The easiest way to do this is by boiling the milkweed in salted water. You can also steam the buds.
You can even eat the flowers in small amounts, as a garnish. The shoots are also edible – these taste like asparagus.
If you’re new to eating milkweed, start with small quantities and make sure it’s well-cooked.
If you’re pregnant, very old, or very young (or are immunocompromised in any way), you may want to skip eating milkweed for now.
Here are some fun milkweed recipes to try:
- Milkweed shoots
- Buffalo-style milkweed pods
- Stuffed milkweed pods
- Gnocchi with milkweed
- Cornmeal fried milkweed
Is Planting Milkweed a Good Idea?
Should you plant milkweed? Absolutely! This is a great way to support local monarch populations, as well as other species.
If you’re looking for a fun and easy way to help the environment, why not try planting milkweed? It’s a great plant to grow, whether you have a garden or just a few spare pots.
Not only will you be helping the monarch butterflies, but you may also find that growing milkweed is addictive!
Once you get started, you’ll want to keep adding more and more plants to your collection.
So what are you waiting for? Start growing milkweed today!
Rebekah is a high-school English teacher n New York, where she lives on a 22 acre homestead. She raises and grows chickens, bees, and veggies such as zucchini (among other things).