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Milkweed, So Much More Than Just a Butterfly Plant

Asclepias tuberosa, ‘Butterfly Weed’. Photo by Larry Hurley taken at Longwood Gardens.

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.

Asclepias incarnata ‘Swamp Milkweed’

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

Stephanie Fleming

Stephanie Fleming was raised at Behnke’s Nurseries in Beltsville. Her Mom, Sonja, was one of Albert & Rose Behnke’s four children. She was weeding from the moment she could walk and hiding as soon as she was old enough to run, so many weeds, so little time. Although she quickly learned how to pull out a perennial and get taken off of weed pulling duty.

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    1. Hi Ira,

      Quuen Anne’s Lace is generally considered a weed in our area and can be found growing wild along roadsides and in fields almost anywhere in the U.S. Be careful if your thinking of picking some up from along the roadside because Poison Hemlock can be easily mistaken for Queen Anne’s Lace. You find out some more information here https://islandcreekes.fcps.edu/

      Thanks
      Larry B

  1. Thanks for your comment! I’m glad you are interested in planting for the butterflies. They need our help because of all the development going on that is destroying butterfly habitats. I don’t recommend planting Queen Anne’s Lace, however. That plant is from Europe and has invaded most of the United States.

    Since it isn’t native, it doesn’t provide our wildlife with what they need when they need it, and it displaces other native plants that do. Tiger Swallowtails have sometimes used this plant as a host, but their real hosts are trees, such as tulip poplars, which also feed hundreds of other butterflies, moths, insects, birds, and mammals.

    Instead of Queen Anne’s Lace, I recommend sticking to native plants. Good ones to try are blazing star (Liatris spicata, a great nectar source), Joe Pye Weed (Eupatorium maculatum or Eupatorium fistulosum, also a nectar source), white turtlehead (Chelone glabra, host plant to the endangered Baltimore Checkerspot butterfly), black-eyed susans (Rudbeckia fulgida, host to the Silvery Checkerspot butterfly), NY Ironweed (Vernonia noveboracensis, a host plant and a nectar plant), or New England aster (Symphiotrichon novae-angliae, host to the Pearly Crescent butterfly).

    All of these provide nectar during different times, when butterflies need it. There are actually dozens more native plants to choose from, many of which are the true hosts to butterflies. And remember that trees are actually the biggest host plants of all, so if you really want to help butterflies, then native trees are your best bet.

    White oak (Quercus alba), River birch (Betula nigra), and Red maple (Acer rubrum) are some easy to find native trees. For more information on native plants, visit the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service website. They have a free publication called “Native Plants for Wildlife Habitat and Conservation Landscaping” that lists many plants that are native to our area.

    Natalie

  2. The photo of milkweed that you have at the top of this page is just gorgeous! Can you tell me what you use for soil and also fertilizer? I’d love to get ours to look like that!

    1. Hi, That picture was taken at Longwood Gardens. Asclepias tuberosa has a taproot, like a carrot, so the growth is going to be clustered from a rather small central point. Looking at the photo, I think that is probably actually three plants (or maybe 5) placed pretty closely together for a massing effect. I don’t see any evidence that they were pinched for fullness. Also, time helps. Plants take a few years to really get going. Just remember, full sun and good soil drainage. They thrive in sandy soil with poor nutrition in the Sand Counties in Wisconsin. I don’t think they have any particular fertilizer requirements, I don’t think heavy feeding is at all necessary. In fact, I think if overfed, the stems would be prone to being weaker and break off at the base.

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