May 16, 2017

What Do You Think of When I Say
The Word 'Milkweed'?
(And a Giveaway)

monarch male

When you think of Milkweed, what do you envision?

The plant growing in concrete cracks at the abandoned lot down the street? The “weed” your dad made you pull all summer long between rows of corn at the farm? Something that will spread all over your garden?

By now, most North Americans (and particularly gardeners) are probably aware that Monarchs are in peril for a host of reasons. And Monarchs need Milkweed (Asclepias spp.), which is their “host” plant ... but what does that actually mean?

caterpillar

It means Monarch larvae—the caterpillar stage—can only eat Milkweed.

But when someone says, “Monarchs only eat one plant,” that’s a little misleading. First, adult Monarch butterflies can nectar on a wide range of flowering plants. And second, while their baby caterpillars can only eat plants in the Milkweed family (Asclepiadaceae), that’s quite a selection!

mix

Did you know there are more than 140 species of Milkweeds native to the Americas? Every state in the U.S. has a wide selection of native Milkweed plants. All of them are garden-worthy in the right setting, in the right garden, and in the right climate and ecosystem. In cold climates, many of us even grow some warm-climate species as annuals.

Milkweed does not have to be a messy plant. As with any plant or group of plants, you, the gardener, can choose where you want to place it. Some Milkweeds even grow beautifully in pots. And the various species come in all shapes, sizes, and colors. Some species wander more than others. If you don't want it to spread by seed, you can harvest the pods to give away or grow more plants in a different location.

Here are just a few Milkweed species native to my state and much of the Midwest:

butterflyweed
Butterflyweed (Asclepias tuberosa)

common
Common Milkweed (A. syriaca)

whorled
Whorled Milkweed (A. verticillata)

swamp
Swamp Milkweed (A. incarnata)

In addition, while there are valid reasons to avoid growing tropical species where they aren't native, they often work well as annuals in cold climates like mine. Many grow fast from seed, and they die with the first killing frost. Here are two examples:

tropical
Tropical Milkweed (A. curassavica)

swan
Swan Milkweed (Gomphocarpus physocarpus, formerly Asclepias physocarpa)

So, the next time you hesitate to add Milkweed to your garden, think about the Monarchs. Remember, Milkweed isn’t just “one plant,” rather, it’s a family of plants. Add a few to your garden to help the Monarch population recover.

An added note: Make sure any Milkweed you plant is pesticide-free. Plants treated with pesticides will be harmful to the caterpillars, butterflies, and other pollinators. If you see a tag with wording similar to, “This plant is protected from _____ and other unwanted pests by Neonicotinoids,” don't buy it. Purchase from an organic grower, or ask your plant supplier if their Milkweed has been treated.

Some of you know that I recently traveled to the Monarchs’ overwintering sites in Mexico with my friend, Kylee Baumle, who is a garden author and self-taught expert on the Monarch (Danaus plexippus). To celebrate the release of her book and the new gardening season, I’m giving away one copy of Kylee’s book“The Monarch: Saving Our Most-Loved Butterfly. (Kylee includes great information on various Milkweed species.) All you have to do is leave a comment here, on the PlantPostings Facebook page, or send me an email at plantpostings[at]gmail[dot]com. I will draw a random name and announce it with my next post. Good luck!

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Note: I’m taking a short break to get some plants in the ground, move some around, and tend others that need a little TLC going into the gardening season ahead. See you on the other side of the break!

35 comments:

  1. Beth what a fabulous post about one of my favs milkweed.....when I think of milkweed I think of an incredible fragrance with the common milkweed and I think of the monarchs that seem to find this beautiful plant in my garden. This year I think we will try and bring some eggs inside if I catch a monarch laying them like I did last year. Thank you and Kylee for the chance for one of us to win her wonderful book....I am looking forward to reading it.

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    1. Thanks, Donna. There are so many species of Milkweed: It's nice to have such a selection for our gardens and to support the Monarch population. It's such a wonderful experience to see them grow and pupate and become butterflies. It's also wonderful to have butterflies in the garden, isn't it? :)

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  2. Nice article Beth. Didn't realize there were so many species. I grow Butterflyweed (Asclepias tuberosa).

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    1. Thanks. I knew there were many species, but wasn't sure on the number until I looked it up and saw it listed by several sources. Butterflyweed is a beautiful garden plant. I've noticed that the caterpillars like to eat the flowers on Butterflyweed.

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  3. I planted swamp milkweed in my garden last year and it didn't come back. I was disappointed. I still have A Tuberosa. It is nice that a lot of nurseries are now offering almost all of the milkweed you have shown here. I haven't seen the Swan or the whorled.

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    1. Swamp is a reliable returner once it finds a spot it likes. I tried it in a few of places, and it really took to a partly sunny location in the back, and a sunnier spot on the west side of the house. I think it does well in full sun, too, if it gets enough water. It took me longer to get Butterflyweed established, but now it seems to come back fuller each year. I grew the Whorled from seed I found up at our other property. I've never tried to grow the Swan--this photo was from a plant we saw in Mexico. :)

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  4. For years, common milkweed was the plant that came to my mind, because I was one of those who pulled hundreds of those plants from my dad's bean fields. But I've learned so much about natives and butterflies in the past few years, and I'm still learning. Kylee posted about Poke milkweed on Facebook one day, which I'd never even heard of. But last weekend, when I went to the local prairie society's annual native plant sale, I not only found the swamp milkweed I wanted, but also some poke milkweed! Of course, I had to grab one:)

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    1. Yes, that's how I thought of Common MW, too--although I didn't grow up on a farm. But it seemed to pop up all over town and out in ditches and farm fields. I still see it in those places now, but the numbers are lower. That Poke MW is awesome, too. I should try it since I have so much shade. Thanks for the reminder.

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  5. Great post Beth . . .
    On my morning walks I have spotted different areas of Milkweed. And then they came through, changing and improving the roads, banks and road edges and erased some of the milkweed beds. I have kept my eyes glued to those areas when I walk in the morning and have managed to pick up a few pods which I hope to plant here on our property. Hopefully I can make some efforts for the. Monarchs. The common milkweed is what I have found near our home. Again, great informative post.

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    1. Thanks, Lynne. I've heard that many municipalities and road crew authorities are limiting the mowing area and the mowing times to help maintain the MW habitat. Safety on the roadways is important, too, but it's nice to see folks becoming aware of the benefit of maintaining as much habitat as possible. Common Milkweed tends to spread by seed and rhizomes, so it needs a little room. But if you have a spot where you don't mind if it fills in, that will work well. Good luck!

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  6. Fantastic information. Thoroughly enjoyed this post and the photos. I am happy to report that there were Monarch cat's on my Swamp milkweed.

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    1. Thank you, Gail. It was fun to see your photos of the caterpillars. Thanks for sharing! I haven't seen any eggs or cats on my MW yet, but they have been at the UW-Madison Arboretum, so we know they're in the area. :)

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  7. When you say 'milkweed', I think monarchs and queens! :)

    I have three species of milkweed growing in my garden. Hope to add at least two more.

    I was not aware that there were 140+ species native to the Americas. Hooray for biodiversity! :D

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    1. You are lucky to have Queens in your area, too. We don't see them here in the north. I'll look forward to your posts about your MW plants. :)

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  8. There are many species of milkweed in MA although I only have common milkweed and butterfly weed in my garden. Whorled milkweed is on my wish list. We are on the very edge of the monarch migration so I don't see the numbers that those in the midwest see.....I treasure each siting!

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    1. Oh, yes, Whorled is a fun one. I started mine from seed that I found at our other property. It seems to start very easily from seed. If mine seed out this year, I can send you some. Any butterfly sighting is a joy, right? :)

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  9. from a UK perspective our monarchs are mostly royalty but the Monarch butterfly does migrate to these shores - albeit as a very rare migrant. Those that do appear will find this non-native family of milkweeds - mostly common, swamp and tropical are grown in gardens here. Many other butterflies enjoy the nectar. A very worthwhile post Beth - have fun getting your hands dirty and connecting with your garden
    p.s. the BBC currently running a documentary series on Mexico which included the miraculous migration of monarchs

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    1. Ha! Good point. Yes, I had heard that you all do see the Monarch butterflies occasionally. Yes, the MWs are great nectar plants, too. Hummingbirds, bees, and other pollinators like them for that purpose, as well. Thanks for the encouragement. I will have to see if I can check out that BBC series--sometimes we get them after you. BBC programming is always so good.

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  10. I think of Monarchs, of course! :)

    What a wonderful post, Beth. I do have common milkweed in my garden but it doesn't seem to be very invasive at this point so I'm just letting it pop up wherever it wants. I definitely want to add more - this time on purpose! As others have said, I didn't realize that the selection was that large - can't wait until it's time to plant up the borders and I've added the annuals to my seed purchase list for next year :)

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    1. Of course! Thank you, Margaret. You are helping the Monarchs by allowing the MW to grow here and there naturally on your property! In our cold climates, the annuals are OK, but I noticed in Kylee's book that now there's even some warning about growing the annuals in the north. I think I will keep it in pots if I grow it--and of course let it die with the first frost. I'm adding more native MWs this year, too.

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  11. Enjoyed this post very much, seeing the diversity And the ornate flowers -- which is what I think of when I hear "milkweed"

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    1. Thanks, Hollis. The flowers really are special, and if I had gone into more detail, I'd have described the scents and floral characteristics of each species. They've been underapprciated for so long. And some of the MWs really don't spread as easily as many people assume.

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  12. Great post, Beth. You're right that non-gardeners and those new to the endeavor are confused about the "eating" aspect of insects, especially when talking about "host" plants versus nectar plants. Your explanation of the diversity of milkweed was excellent.

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    1. Thanks, Tina. It's a complicated topic, and there's so much for all of us to learn. It's also difficult to explain in a short blog post, but I hope this helped a little. When I was younger, I thought there was only one type of Milkweed, but there are so many options. :)

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  13. Hello,
    I just checked Kylee's book out at the library. I love the photos and she did a great job. I also like the idea of having craft projects to help educate.
    Thank you for the opportunity,
    Carla

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    1. Hi Carla: It's a great book, isn't it? I'm enjoying reading it, too. Good luck with the drawing!

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  14. I have tried and failed to cultivate some of the orange varieties but the only one that takes hold here is a pale, dirty pink. That sounds bad but I took the trouble to look closely last summer and, to my surprise, found it quite beautiful.

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    1. It sounds like you're growing Common MW. I agree: The flowers are beautiful, and the scent is amazing. I only have a small patch of Common here--it does tend to spread, but my lot is so shady I don't think the sun-lover will be as aggressive here. Regarding the orange Butterflyweed, it took mine a while to get going, too, and then for the past several years it has filled in more each year. I love it!

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  15. enjoy your break, Beth. You've highlighted the problem with using common names of plants - they are very imprecise. I love the drama in the first photo with the light making the butterfly wings glow.

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    1. Thanks, Sue. Yes, using Latin names can be so helpful, since they are consistent the world over. I tend to use both--for people familiar with the common and/or the Latin names. It's always a joy to seed the Monarchs on the Milkweed blooms during the summer. :)

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  16. I just planted my first Common Milkweed in my garden last week. I hope I don't regret it! It's aggressive, but I figure I can control it if I cut off the seed pods. I already grow Butterflyweed and Swamp Milkweed. I used to have Purple Milkweed, but it faded away. Great post!

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    1. Yes, I planted some Common a couple of years ago, too--but in a very limited space, in partial shade. I don't think it will take over there, but it's a spot that would be easier to control. Butterflyweed, Swamp, and Whorled are my favorites, for various reasons. Swamp grows surprisingly well in partial shade, once it finds a spot it likes. Thanks, Jason.

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  17. I had no idea there were so many milkweeds! These definitely are not weeds in my garden! Most I have planted have perished, but I am successfully growing a couple of varieties in my garden. I love their blooms, and hopefully I can help the monarchs.

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  18. There are definitely more milkweed than people know about! There is a milkweed for almost any growing condition! I have a lot of rose milkweed in my yard, and I am growing a couple other types as well from seed. Interestingly enough, I was in India and saw a plant with those huge ball things like on your swan milkweed growing in a parking lot. It took me a while to figure out that it was a milkweed! Very unusual looking.

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  19. Only a gardener would say, I'm taking a brief break to go out and garden! Milkweed forever!

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