All About Milkweed
They are right at home in an informal sunny border, where their striking architectural structure will contrast beautifully beside some fine-textured native grasses. And, with their compelling fragrance, they are the perfect lure for many different species of butterflies—making milkweeds a wonderful addition to a ‘butterfly garden’.
Despite milkweed’s overall bold structure, their individual flowers are quite exquisite. Growing on short stalks, these delicate blossoms hang together like clusters of nodding bells—a delight for the eye as well as the nose!
Milkweeds are vital contributors to the wider environment
In summertime many kinds of butterflies and bees swarm around the milkweed flowers to feast on the nectar and, in so doing, they transfer the pollen from plant to plant (thus perpetuating the milkweeds themselves).
And—most important of all— milkweed plants are the ONLY food that the larvae of our beloved and beleaguered Monarch butterfly can eat, and thus they are the critical link in the lifecycle of the Monarchs. Without milkweeds these beautiful butterflies will completely disappear; their population has already dropped an incredible 90% over the past decade.
Milkweed and Butterfly Weed are both members of the Asclepias family
Milkweeds all belong to the single genus Asclepias (pronounced As-KLEE-pias). They all have complex five-part flowers, and most exude a distinctive milky sap - both features that can help identify milkweeds in the wild.
Choose the Best Milkweed for Your Own Growing Conditions
The USDA data base lists 76 different milkweed species that are native to Canada and the USA. The places where the various species are found in the wild give us plenty of clues about how to grow them in our gardens.
There are milkweed species that are native to every region of the USA and southern Canada. and many are adapted to a wide range of climates.
However some species are quite particular as to their growing requirements. A few are found in swampy places, a sure hint as to where they will thrive around our homes. Others grow quite happily in arid parts of the country—choose these if you live in a dry climate or want something for an especially dry spot on your property.
Which Milkweed is Right For Your Garden?
The most commonly available milkweeds include four species that are native across a vast swath of the continent, from the Atlantic coast to the Rocky Mountains, and from the Gulf Coast to southern Canada. Some of these milkweeds prefer wet locations but others prefer dry places. So, wherever you live and garden, there is a milkweed that will be right for you!
Common Milkweed—Asclepias syriaca: Seen in meadows across the eastern part of the United States, the Common Milkweed is a robust-looking plant with white (to-pink, to-pale-lavender) bell-like flowers. Growing between three and five feet tall (maybe taller in good garden soil), it's best placed at the back of the border. It prefers somewhat moist soil and plenty of sun, and it would look great combined with any native Switch Grass, such as Panicum ‘North Wind’.
Swamp Milkweed—Asclepias incarnata: This milkweed has rose-pink flowers and grows naturally in marshes, making it ideal for a moist spot in your garden. It would also make a great addition to a rain garden (a wide depression that collects excessive rainwater, gradually letting it be absorbed into the surrounding soil).
There are three popular varieties of Swamp milkweed for you to choose from, all growing over three feet high for a good ‘middle of the border’ placement: Ice Ballet is a recent introduction that has pure white flowers. Soulmate and Cinderella are two other new cultivars that are both quite floriferous and have deep-pink flowers. Either one would make a wonderful planting companion for Ice Ballet.
Butterfly Weed is the iconic, bright orange beauty that‚s a staple in every butterfly garden. This showy native wildflower is easy to grow, cold hardy, and does well in poor, d...Learn MoreButterfly Weed Butterfly Weed Asclepias tuberosaAs low as $15.99 Sale $11.99Per Bag of 3Butterfly Weed is the iconic, bright orange beauty that's a staple in every butterfly garden. This showy native wildflower is easy to grow, cold hardy, and does well in poor, dry soils. Long-lasting clusters of small, flat-topped flowers are crowned with a yellow, sun-kissed "corona" and bloom from June through August. Butterfly Weed is an important nectar source for Monarch butterflies and its leaves provide essential food for developing Monarch caterpillars - but expect to see a variety of pollinators making use of this plant. Please note the Bag of 3 are bareroots. (Asclepias tuberosa)
Common Milkweed is the most-well known of the milkweeds – and an important food source and host plant for Monarch butterflies. This reliably cold-hardy native plant is as beautiful...Learn MoreCommon Milkweed Common Milkweed Asclepias syriacaAs low as $13.32Per Plant - 3" PotCommon Milkweed is the most-well known of the milkweeds – and an important food source and host plant for Monarch butterflies. This reliably cold-hardy native plant is as beautiful as it is tough. Clusters of tightly-closed lavender buds open to reveal sweetly-fragrant pink blossoms, attracting a menagerie of local pollinators to the garden. Long-lasting plants produce spectacular interest at every stage of growth. (Asclepias syriaca)
‚Ice Ballet‚ Swamp Milkweed is a staple of the butterfly garden, providing essential food, nectar and shelter to Monarchs at every life stage. Clouds of fragrant, bright-...Learn MoreIce Ballet Swamp Milkweed Swamp Milkweed Ice Ballet Asclepias incarnata Ice BalletAs low as $15.99 Sale $11.99Per Plant - 3" Pot'Ice Ballet' Swamp Milkweed is a staple of the butterfly garden, providing essential food, nectar and shelter to Monarchs at every life stage. Clouds of fragrant, bright-white blooms also attract and support a crowd of other pollinators. While many Swamp Milkweeds make their homes in wetlands, 'Ice Ballet' thrives in drier soils. (Asclepias incarnata)
‚Silky Deep Red‚ Tropical Milkweed is noted for its long bloom season, producing clusters of orange-red flowers with yellow centers from late spring to fall. This lush be...Learn MoreSilky Deep Red Tropical Milkweed Silky Deep Red Tropical Milkweed, Bloodflower Asclepias curassavica Silky Deep RedAs low as $11.32 Sale $8.49Per Plant - 3" Pot'Silky Deep Red' Tropical Milkweed is noted for its long bloom season, producing clusters of orange-red flowers with yellow centers from late spring to fall. This lush beauty carries an air of exotic mystery when planted as an annual in cooler zones, or used as a statement in container gardens. Young foliage has reddish tones adding to the variety’s distinctive beauty. (Asclepias curassavica)
Whorled Milkweed—Asclepias verticillata: Whorled milkweed has attractive white flowers in loose clusters which open in mid-summer. It is shorter than most milkweeds, no more than thirty inches high, and it will also tolerate partial shade.
Whorled milkweed is found in dry locations across the eastern half of the continent and so will do best in a dry spot in the garden.
Butterfly Weed—Asclepias tuberosa: Butterfly weed is known for its cheery upright-facing orange flowers in mid-summer, and now it is joined by a new cultivar called Hello Yellow. As the name suggests, many kinds of adult butterflies will visit your garden to sip the nectar of your Butterfly Weed flowers. In addition, the plants will also attract Monarch butterflies for egg-laying.
Like the Whorled Milkweed, Butterfly Weed needs a dry location near the front of the border. And, since both these milkweed species are shorter in stature, they make perfect garden companions, where together their colorful white, orange and yellow flowers will make a lovely contrast. Now complete the picture with the linear texture of some Little Bluestem grasses!
Tropical Milkweed—Asclepias curassavica: Tropical Milkweed, hails all the way from South America. In colder climates across the continental USA and Canada, this one is normally grown as an annual where it will bloom from June to October. (Some people have good luck over-wintering their Tropical Milkweed indoors on a sunny windowsill). Save your seeds from the previous year and then start them indoors about eight weeks before your last frost date.
Tropical Milkweed grows up to 3 feet high. It has blood-red flowers with yellow hoods which would look lovely with a Swamp Milkweed cultivar, like Ice Ballet .
Tropical milkweed is also a great lure for Monarch butterflies where they will readily lay their eggs.
A word of warning: it is important that we gardeners do not inadvertently disrupt the annual Monarch migration patterns northward by encouraging a late hatch. So PLEASE , if you want to grow the tropical milkweed, check the date by which the Monarchs would normally leave your area for their migration northwards; and at that time cut your Tropical Milkweed plants to the ground.
Our sister organization, High Country Gardens, carries milkweed species that are native to the western states.
Growing Milkweeds in the Garden
Is Milkweed a weed?
While the name milkWEED sounds as though these plants may be poised to take over your garden, most species of milkweed are actually very well behaved in a garden setting. And, if you are concerned about your plants self-seeding in unwanted places it's easy to remove the large seedpods just before they split open and release their seeds in the fall. And a few species, such as the western Showy Pink Milkweed— Asclepias speciosa—spread by runners and are best grown in a meadow.
Garden Design with Milkweed in Mind
Milkweeds lend themselves to an informal planting, either in a sunny border or in a meadow (which you mow back annually in the fall). Their strong texture always looks stunning in conjunction with the taller prairie grasses, such as Big and Little Bluestems, Switch grasses and Tussock grass.
Another great way to use milkweed in the garden, is to install a Monarch Waystation. This specialized garden is a plant grouping that takes the entire lifestyle of the Monarch Butterfly into consideration, offering both food and habitat for every stage of the Monarch's growth. You can even have your Waystation officially registered!
Growing Milkweed from Seed
Milkweeds are quite easy to grow from seed, although it may take a couple of years before your young milkweeds plants actually flower. If possible sow the seeds in open ground in the fall, where they will naturally be exposed the normal winter’s cold. If you need to plant the seeds in the spring just place them in a moist paper towel in the freezer for a few weeks. This technique, known as stratifying the seed, mimics the cold of winter and breaks the seed’s natural dormancy.
Butterfly Weed (Asclepias tuberosa) is the famous orange milkweed species native from Canada to Florida. Needs fast-draining soil and full sun. Perennial...Learn MoreButterfly Weed Seeds Butterfly Weed Asclepias tuberosaAs low as $4.95Per PacketButterfly Weed (Asclepias tuberosa) is the famous orange milkweed species native from Canada to Florida. Needs fast-draining soil and full sun. Perennial
Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) produces purple/pink flower clusters that wildflower gardeners love. Milkweed is one of the Monarch Butterflies’ favorite plants and will br...Learn MoreCommon Milkweed Seeds Common Milkweed Asclepias syriacaAs low as $4.95Per PacketCommon Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) produces purple/pink flower clusters that wildflower gardeners love. Milkweed is one of the Monarch Butterflies’ favorite plants and will bring many winged friends to your garden or meadow. It can be a challenge to grow but once established it will thrive for years to come and spread quickly. Perennial.
Swamp Milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) is a showier variety of Common Milkweed. It is extremely elegant, producing willowy foliage and pink blooms. It will also attract beautiful butte...Learn MoreSwamp Milkweed Seeds Swamp Milkweed Asclepias incarnataAs low as $4.95Per PacketSwamp Milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) is a showier variety of Common Milkweed. It is extremely elegant, producing willowy foliage and pink blooms. It will also attract beautiful butterflies and hummingbirds to your garden or meadow. Perennial.
Similar to Common Milkweed in looks, Showy Milkweed has soft, pastel pink flower clusters with longer petals. This sun-loving asclepias grows well in dry, fast-draining soil and requ...Learn MoreShowy Milkweed Seeds Showy Milkweed Asclepias speciosa$5.95Per PacketSimilar to Common Milkweed in looks, Showy Milkweed has soft, pastel pink flower clusters with longer petals. This sun-loving asclepias grows well in dry, fast-draining soil and requires little supplemental water once established. A prolific and important nectar source for Monarch butterflies, bees, and other beneficial bugs. Re-seeds readily. (Asclepias speciosa)
However, if you have a small garden, or are a beginning gardener, buying milkweed plants is generally the preferred approach.
And finally, people who want to do even more to conserve Monarch butterflies are experimenting with growing their milkweeds in containers, where they can monitor the progress of the eggs, larvae and watch butterflies emerging from their chrysalides.
About the Author: Judith Irven is an accomplished Vermont landscape designer and garden writer, and she delights in helping people everywhere create beautiful gardens. You can visit her online at: OutdoorSpacesVermont.com. Back to top.
To learn more about the plants we sell and how to grow them in your yard, garden beds and patio containers, sign up for our inspiring emails.