Most people are familiar with milkweed as the host plant for the Monarch butterfly. However, milkweed is so much more than just a butterfly plant. Milkweeds are one of our most stunning and attractive native wildflowers. Boasting fantastically bold colors such as luscious orange and creamy-lipstick pink, milkweeds are garden gems that no landscape should be without.
[Note from the Behnke Perennials Specialist: we try to have Asclepias tuberosa in stock in season, which is late April through August. Asclepias incarnata is most easy to obtain in April and May. Being tall, while it is nice in the ground, the latter tends to be unattractive in a pot in the summer. ]
Three milkweeds are indigenous to our area, but only two are widely available through retail nurseries. The most popular is butterfly weed, Asclepias tuberosa. Butterfly weed is an easy-care beauty for the sunny border. Laughing at drought, deer, and disease, this plant is as maintenance-free as it gets. With a color reminiscent of juicy oranges, butterfly weed is one of those seventy-mile-an-hour plants, meaning you can still see it from your car while driving down the highway at seventy miles an hour.
The show-stopping blooms on this plant aren’t the only attribute to this garden-winner. The butterfly weed in my garden has withstood temperatures hovering close to and above the one hundred degree mark, without even so much as a hint of rain, and it still looks as fresh and cool as a tall glass of orange juice.
Butterfly weed can grow from two to three feet tall and belongs in the front or middle of the border. Even though the blossoms are bold, butterfly weed blooms are not brash and look great paired with nearly any other color. For a show-stopping combination, try it with Liatris spicata, blazing star. The purple spikes of blazing star combined with the flat-topped orange flowers of butterfly weed are a stunning arrangement. Add some Panicum virgatum, switchgrass, for a soft background and some movement, and you have a native butterfly garden that will be the envy of the neighborhood.
On the other hand, as its name suggests, swamp milkweed, Asclepias incarnata, requires a bit more moisture to keep it happy. However, swamp milkweed is no less a winner. Its beautiful rosy pink flowers lend a touch of tenderness and charm to the perennial border. Growing taller than its cousin the butterfly weed, swamp milkweed can easily reach three feet tall. Pair it with some yellow Coreopsis verticillata ‘Moonbeam’ or Rudbeckia fulgida, otherwise known as black-eyed Susan. Add some Perovskia atriplicifolia, Russian sage, for the background; and you have just created an eye-catching vignette that will certainly catch the attention of all the butterflies in the neighborhood.
Milkweeds are most often known as the host plants for the dynamic orange and black monarch butterfly. The color of the butterfly, and its familiar white-yellow-and black-striped caterpillar, advertise its toxicity to predators and therefore keep it safe from marauding birds. Monarch butterflies can only survive on milkweed plants and follow the milkweed trail north in spring and back south in the fall during their extraordinary and implausible migration. So planting milkweeds in our landscapes will help the monarch butterflies to survive their impossibly long journey. However, monarchs are not the only insect that survives on milkweed. The elegant look-alike Queen butterfly is also dependent on milkweed as its larval host.
In addition, many curiously beautiful beetles enjoy milkweeds, such as the aptly named milkweed beetle, which resembles an oblong, whiskered ladybug with its red body and black polka dots. This beetle is a beauty to behold and, unfazed by close human contact, seems to stop and smile for my camera lens as I lean in close for a picture. But most of all, milkweeds offer the sweet, nutritious nectar that so many butterflies and other pollinators long for. Adding a few milkweed plants to your garden is almost like adding an entire butterfly garden in one plant. Butterflies, skippers, beetles, beeflies, and other pollinators dance from one flower to the next in utter delight, blissfully intoxicated by their drink of preference. It’s like a pollinator party!
In addition to feeding multiple insects by being a host plant and a nectar source, milkweeds produce soft downy fibers in late summer when their seeds mature. In nature, this down helps the seeds get carried off by gusts of wind so that new milkweed colonies can become established further away from the competition of the parent plants. These downy fibers are used by birds, particularly the American goldfinch, to line their nests and create soft cozy cups for their precious offspring. American goldfinches build their nests late in the summer when seeds become available as a food source, and when most other bird species have finished caring for their nestlings, so the silky milkweed fibers are available at the same time as the goldfinches are building their first nests of the season.
The fibers, although soft, are also strong, and historically have been used in textiles for making rope and twine. Sometimes the downy seed heads were used instead of feathers for stuffing beds and cushions. And since the downy fibers looked like soft, fine fur, they were also used in making hats. If you allow the seeds to mature and burst open in your own garden, you may be rewarded with some new plants the following spring. But be aware, milkweeds are slow to emerge in spring, and just when you thought your plants did not make it through the winter, they will finally awaken from their deep sleep. Mature milkweeds don’t like to be transplanted, since they have a long taproot, so transplant seedlings when they are still young to encourage success.
So if you are looking to add some new plants to your garden, why not try one of the milkweed species? Even if you already have some milkweed in your garden, studies show that butterflies find plants more easily that are grouped together, so it would be a good idea to add more milkweed plants to your landscape this year. The butterflies and goldfinches will thank you for it.
By Natalie Brewer, Master Gardener