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How to Plant Wildflowers
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With their fragrant flowers, which grow in clusters like little bells, all milkweeds are a magnet for butterflies. Four different species of native Milkweed— the Whorled, Common and Swamp Milkweeds, as well as Butterfly Weed (also a milkweed)— are found in most states from the eastern seaboard to the Rocky Mountains as well as in southern Canada, and will thrive in a wide range of garden and meadow habitats.
Butterfly Weed is a type of Milkweed. Both are members of the Asclepias family.
Some milkweed species are short and will work best at the front of the border; others are taller and make a statement among other plants. Some species, are available in a range of colors for your garden.
Milkweeds are a critical resource for our whole environment. The nectar in all milkweed flowers provides valuable food for butterflies, bees and other pollinators.
The leaves of all milkweed species are the ONLY food that the caterpillars of our beautiful American Monarch butterflies can eat. But, because of widespread pesticide use, wild-growing milkweeds are disappearing in places where these butterflies breed. This has led to a 90% decline in the number of Eastern Monarchs in a just single decade. Looking ahead, if we don't replenish these lost milkweeds, Monarch butterflies will vanish from the American landscape forever.
Beware of look-alikes! Here, a Viceroy butterfly and a Swallowtail visit Milkweed. Unlike a Monarch, Viceroy's have an extra, black horizontal line crossing their hind-wings.
Learn more about the special relationship between Monarchs and Milkweed.
Light: Young plants need plenty of diffuse light as they grow.
Soil: Take your cue from where you find the individual species in the wild. Thus, Common Milkweed grows well in average garden soil. Swamp Milkweed, as its name implies, will do best in a moist environment or possibly a rain garden. Tropical Milkweed performs beautifully in hot, humid conditions (though it can be grown as an annual in the north). However, Butterfly Weed and Whorled Milkweed need dry conditions.
Spacing: Butterfly Weed, Whorled Milkweed and Common Milkweed should all be spaced about 18” apart. However, Swamp Milkweed eventually forms clumps up to 3’ across. So, plant Swamp Milkweed and its cultivars between 30” and 36” apart.
Spring Planting: If you want to start milkweeds in the spring, the easiest way is to buy potted seedlings and transplant them directly into your garden beds or meadow.
Oftentimes your spring milkweed plants will arrive in a dormant state, with no green leaves above the soil line. This is perfectly normal! At this stage in your milkweeds growth, all of the energy is being focused on developing a strong root system. After you plant your milkweed, you should see it 'wake up' as the soil warms and should begin to see leaves form.
Fall Planting: If you want to start milkweeds from seed, the easiest way is to emulate Mother Nature and plant them in the fall! In the wild, milkweed plants scatter their seeds quite late in the season—at a time when the coming cold would kill any seedlings that germinated right away. But the seeds of milkweeds (and other plants that flower late in the season) are cleverly programmed to delay their germination until after they have been exposed to winter’s cold followed by gradually rising temperatures in springtime—an adaptation known as stratification.
Copy this technique at home by scratching your milkweed seed directly into the soil in the fall. Then, next year in early summer, keep a sharp lookout for those newly emerging seedlings and water them regularly until they are well established.
However, if you really need to start your seeds in the spring, first you must break their dormancy by mimicking nature’s stratification. So, before planting, wrap the seeds in a damp paper towel, seal inside a plastic bag, and leave it in the refrigerator for several weeks. Then plant the seeds in regular potting soil. Learn how to germinate and grow milkweed seeds in detail here.
Growth habit: Most milkweed species are clump-forming. However, Common Milkweed is a single stemmed variety.
Staking: None needed.
Watering: Swamp Milkweed needs either a naturally moist environment or regular watering. Whorled and Common Milkweeds, as well as Butterfly Weed, are suited to a dry environment.
Fertilizing: Milkweed does not require fertilization, as it is a native plant that performs well in poor soils.
Mulching: You may mulch milkweed with leaf litter or fine-chopped bark mulch if you're trying to control weeds. Dry-soil loving milkweeds, like Butterfly Weed, may not appreciate the water retaining qualities of mulch.
Trimming & Pruning: None needed.
Dividing & Transplanting: None needed. Swamp milkweed in particular, develops a deep tap-root and resents being moved. To avoid unwanted volunteer seedlings a garden setting, remove or secure all seed pods in early fall, before they split open and spread their seed.
Pests & Disease: Typically there are no serious pests or diseases. However, in certain situations, both aphids and whitefly can overrun your milkweed plants. Use a jet of water to hose them off. When you spray, be sure to avoid any clusters of Monarch eggs that are growing on the affected plants. Move any Monarch larvae that have already hatched to a clean plan before spraying.
To avoid crown rot, choose a dry location for Butterfly Weed and Whorled Milkweed.
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