How to Grow Milkweed

how to grow milkweedhow to grow milkweed

Milkweed (Asclepias)

Milkweed are beautiful American wildflowers and delightful garden plants. Fragrant clusters of flowers are a magnet for butterflies and pollinators. Four species of native milkweed are found in most states: the Whorled Milkweed, Common Milkweed, and Swamp Milkweeds, and Butterfly Weed. They will thrive in a wide range of garden and meadow habitats from the eastern seaboard to the Rocky Mountains, including southern Canada. Plant milkweed in your meadow or garden to provide much-needed habitat and food for monarch butterflies, bees, and other beneficial insects. Follow our guide to learn how to planting and growing healthy milkweed.

When & Where To Plant Milkweed

Light: Young Milkweed plants need plenty of diffuse light as they grow. Plant in full sun locations.

Soil: There is a Milkweed variety for every landscape.

Spacing: Milkweed establish large, deep root systems and prefer not to be transplanted. 

  • Butterfly Weed, Whorled Milkweed, and Common Milkweed should all be spaced about 18” apart. 
  • Swamp Milkweed eventually matures to forms clumps up to 36" across. You can plant them closer and then thin the plants as they grow in, or, plant Swamp Milkweed and its cultivars between 30” and 36” apart.

Planting Time: Milkweed plants can be planted in spring or fall. In spring, your milkweed plants will likely arrive in a dormant state, with no green leaves above the soil line. This is perfectly normal! At this stage in your milkweed's 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 - often, milkweed can be slow to wake up from dormancy compared to other perennials in your garden. Be sure not to overwater while they are dormant.

Fall planting in fall gives your plants a chance to establish themselves before winter. In areas with cold winters, this perennial plant will return in late spring.

Growing Milkweed From Seed: To start milkweed from seed, the easiest way is to emulate Mother Nature and plant them in the fall. If you really want to start your seeds in the spring, first you must break their dormancy with cold stratification, which we cover in our guide for starting milkweed from seed.
Learn More: How To Germinate and Grow Milkweed Seeds.

How To Plant Milkweed: Step-By-Step Instructions

  1. Start with healthy plants that have developed root systems.

  2. Prepare a planting hole that's twice as deep and twize as wide as the root ball of your milkweed plant. When planting multiple plants, you can amend the soil for each planting hole, or amend the whole bed before planting.

  3. If the roots are clinging to the sides of the pot, you can "rough up" the roots to encourage outward growth.

  4. Plant your lmilkweed with the top of the root ball even with the soil line. Backfill soil around the plant and press firmly all around.

  5. Water well to compress the soil and remove an air pockets. 

unpotting milkweedunpotting milkweed
Carefully unpot your Milkweed by gently tipping the plant over to release it from the pot.
planting milkweedplanting milkweed
Plant your Milkweed so that it is level with soil.

How To Care For Milkweed Plants

Growth habit: Most milkweed species are clump-forming. Common Milkweed is a single stemmed variety.

Staking: Milkweed plants have sturdy stems - no staking needed.

Watering: Swamp Milkweed varieties need 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. This native plant 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.

Monarch Butterfly visiting Swamp MilkweedMonarch Butterfly visiting Swamp Milkweed
Monarch Butterfly visiting Swamp Milkweed

End of Season Milkweed Care

 

Dividing & Transplanting: All Milkweed, and swamp milkweed in particular, develop a deep tap-root, so we do not recommend dividing or transplanting milkweed plants once they've been established in your garden or meadow.

Milkweed will naturally reseed and spread over time. You can harvest the seeds to plant them where you'd like. If you want to prevent volunteer seedlings a garden setting, remove or secure all seed pods in early fall, before they split open and spread their seeds. Learn More: Managing Asclepias Plants - How To Harvest Seeds And Control Spreading

Pests & Disease: Typically there are no serious pests or diseases that affect mature milkweed. In certain situations, aphids or 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 place before spraying.

Common Milkweed SeedsCommon Milkweed Seeds
Common Milkweed Seeds

Learn More About Milkweed

Monarchs & Milkweed

The leaves of all milkweed species are the host plant for the caterpillars of beautiful American monarch butterflies - meaning milkweed leaves are the ONLY food that they can eat to survive. However, because of widespread pesticide use and the destruction of meadows across the country, wild-growing milkweeds are disappearing in places where these butterflies breed. This has led to a nearly 90% decline in monarch populations over the last 2 decades! Looking ahead, if we don't replenish these lost milkweeds, Monarch butterflies will vanish from the American landscape forever. Fortunately, you can plant milkweed to help support your local monarch butterfly and pollinator population!

Learn more about the special relationship: Monarchs & Milkweed

Milkweeds are irresisible pollinator plants. In addition to Monarch butterflies, they will attract bees, other butterflies and moths, and a variety of other benefical bugs. To learn more about milkweed plants and which variety is best for your garden, read our guide!

Learn More: All About Milkweed

Additional Milkweed resources mentioned in the article:

Shop Milkweed Plants

  1. Ice Ballet Swamp Milkweed, Asclepias incarnata, Photo Credit Darlene Williams

    '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...

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    Ice Ballet Swamp Milkweed Swamp Milkweed Ice Ballet Asclepias incarnata Ice Ballet
    As low as $16.98 Sale $8.49
    Per 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)
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  2. Soulmate Swamp Milkweed, Asclepias incarnata

    'Soulmate' Swamp Milkweed is an essential North American native that provides vital food for developing Monarch butterflies. Cherry pink flowers with white centers emanate a sweet va...

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    Soulmate Swamp Milkweed Swamp Milkweed Soulmate Asclepias incarnata Soulmate
    As low as $16.98 Sale $8.49
    Per Plant - 3" Pot
    'Soulmate' Swamp Milkweed is an essential North American native that provides vital food for developing Monarch butterflies. Cherry pink flowers with white centers emanate a sweet vanilla fragrance that calls in countless other pollinators. Beyond its beautiful color and sweet scent, this compact milkweed tolerates moist soils and is a great choice for small-space gardens. Deer resistant. (Asclepias incarnata)
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  3. Orange Butterfly Weed With Monarch Butterfly, Asclepias tuberosa

    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, dry soi...

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    Butterfly Weed Butterfly Weed Asclepias tuberosa
    As low as $11.98 Sale $5.99
    Per Plant - 3" Pot
    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, 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. (Asclepias tuberosa)
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  4. Butterfly Weed Hello Yellow, Asclepias tuberosa

    'Hello Yellow' Butterfly Weed was developed from the native Butterfly Weed and has golden clusters of flowers. Typical of Butterfly Weed, 'Hello Yellow' has narrow green leaves that ...

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    Hello Yellow Butterfly Weed Butterfly Weed Hello Yellow Asclepias tuberosa Hello Yellow
    As low as $12.98 Sale $6.49
    Per Plant - 3" Pot
    'Hello Yellow' Butterfly Weed was developed from the native Butterfly Weed and has golden clusters of flowers. Typical of Butterfly Weed, 'Hello Yellow' has narrow green leaves that serve as an important food source for Monarch caterpillars. Many pollinators will be attracted to the flowers as they bloom from July through August. Drought tolerant and easy to grow in your sunny butterfly garden. (Asclepias tuberosa)
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