This plant is a must for butterfly gardens Milkweed & monarchs


By Katie Kane Shipka

Ohio certified volunteer naturalist

Milkweed is a must for any butterfly garden, providing nourishment and a nursery. It is one of many important wildflowers that attracts pollinators, especially the monarch butterfly, which deposits its eggs only on the milkweed leaf. Milkweed provides nutrients for the caterpillar phase of the monarch’s life. Without milkweed, monarch butterflies will disappear. Thus, it is vital to the continuation of the species.

Monarchs navigate north in spring and deposit eggs on milkweed leaves, returning three or more generations later in the fall to the fir forests in central Mexico. Monarchs have from two to four different broods as they travel, and those produced from the last brood will make the incredible final journey.

Our native species of milkweed are butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa), common milkweed (A. syriaca), purple milkweed (A. purpurascens), Sullivant’s milkweed (A. sullivantii) and swamp milkweed (A. incarnate). All are easy to grow, attractive and available from local nurseries. Avoid sending for milkweed seeds, as they are often not our native plants. You can collect seeds locally in the fall or have a friend dig up some for you on their own property.

Milkweeds grow well in disturbed areas such as roadsides, bike paths and fields. Collect seeds in autumn when brown seed pods have split and are ready to burst. Store them in an airtight container in a cool, dry environment (refrigerator) or plant them immediately.

Historically, milkweed is both medicinal and toxic. Plant stems are filled with milky sap and it can be toxic to mammals. Monarch larvae feed and retain toxins they consume and remain poisonous to predators.

Milkweed is more difficult to find because it is losing its natural habitat due to building of highways and housing, and most people do not realize its importance. It’s decline results in a decline of monarchs. Maintaining native wildflowers in large areas is just part of reestablishing the environment necessary for monarchs and all pollinators.

It has large, broad oval leaves that are opposite on the stem, grows 1.5-6’ tall with purple or pink flowers in drooping clusters and can live two to 25 years. It propagates by seed and by sending underground roots a short distance from the mother plant, which provides nutrients for the new plant.

Milkweed blooms from June to August. Seedlings do not flower until the second year. In late summer, you will notice black/orange milkweed bugs, wasps and nocturnal moths, none of which are harmful to either the plant or the gardener, but aid in pollination.

When planting to attract wildlife, plant native plants, Specific chemical relationships have developed between insects and native plants. Non-native plants add little, if anything, to the nectar necessary for beneficial insects.

To learn about types of milkweed and supporting monarch butterflies, visit go.osu.edu/milkweeds.

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