Saving the Monarch Butterfly by Planting Milkweed
by High Country Gardens
The milky, bitter sap of Asclepias (Milkweed)is the essential ingredient that adult Monarch butterflies utilize to protect themselves from being eaten by birds and other insect predators. Planting Milkweed can contribute to the survival of the Monarch.
Beautify Your Garden and Landscape with Asclepias (Milkweed)
There is increasing interest within the gardening community regarding butterfly plants, particularly Milkweed, and the plight of the Monarch butterfly. Thank goodness for this. Replanting Milkweed and sowing Milkweed seeds in residential, farm, ranch, and community gardens will help to replenish populations of this plant genus lost to industrial agricultural practices. This is essential to creating a habitat for this beloved migratory butterfly species and to the Monarch's survival.
Like many butterfly and moth species, Monarch butterflies have very specific plant needs when it comes to feeding their caterpillars. Species of Asclepias (Milkweed) are the only plants on which Monarch caterpillars will feed. The milky, bitter sap of Asclepias is the essential ingredient that adult Monarch butterflies utilize to protect themselves from being eaten by birds and other insect predators.
Easy-to-Grow and Well-Adapted
Showy Pink Milkweed (Asclepias speciosa) is a widely distributed species in North America, with populations occurring over most of the western US and Canada. It is also one of the easiest Asclepias species to grow, especially for beginner gardeners.
Here are some advantages to planting Showy Pink Milkweed:
- Well-adapted to most soil types (including clay)
- Extremely cold hardy to USDA zone 3
- Tolerates both dry and wet soil conditions
- Naturalizes readily to provide even more caterpillar food and flower nectar
This plant is stoloniferous (spreads by underground roots) and, over time, will crowd out less vigorous perennials. I recommend that it be planted along fence lines, off to the side of vegetable beds, in rain gardens, along roadside ditches, and other semi-wild parts of your property rather than in the middle of your very best flower bed.
The Ideal Time for Planting Milkweed
Cold hardy Asclepias are great perennials to plant in the fall. Come spring, they are established and ready to host caterpillars on their leaves and feed adult butterflies with their flowers. Orange Butterfly Weed (Asclepias tuberosa) is an especially showy member of the genus. Fall is a wonderful time of the year to transplant this beauty and other Asclepias species. In addition to attracting butterflies, it will also attract other pollinators, such as beneficial native bees. That said, if you follow the planting tips below, Milkweed can also be successfully planted in spring.
Tips For Planting and Growing Milkweed
Carefully remove the Milkweed plant from its pot by loosening the pot from the rootball, placing your hand around the plant and turning it upside-down to slide the pot off the rootball. Don't tug at the stem, as you could damage it. Before planting, make sure to score the roots with a pocketknife, so they will spread out into the surrounding soil from the rootball. Asclepias need at least 6-8 hours of full sun to do their best. Pink-flowered Milkweed prefers more moisture and will do better in areas with higher rainfall, such as the eastern U.S. Orange-flowered Butterfly Weed does better in dryer areas, such as the western U.S. Water after planting and about three times a week until the plant gets established.
TIP: Asclepias (Milkweed) plants have a taproot. They cannot be divided and should not be transplanted once established, so pick a site in your garden where they can be enjoyed without being moved.
Text by David Salman. Photos by B. Ziniewicz and Ernst.
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