Grow Milkweed and Save the Monarchs

Types of milkweed to support monarch butterflies

It’s best to grow a milkweed that is native to your area so monarch butterflies that visit find the habitat to which they are accustomed. You can grow other species, but the natives are suited to your region. Most milkweeds grow best in full sun, but they will tolerate some shade. With the exception of swamp milkweed, which prefers moist, rich soil, milkweed species will thrive in poor, dry soils and disturbed areas, fields, and ditches. Also keep in mind that milkweed plants have some toxicity — so keep them out of places where livestock may graze and don’t let pets or children chew on them.

Photos courtesy of Prairie Moon Nursery (whorled milkweed); John D. Byrd, Mississippi State University, (green milkweed); Dave Powell, USDA Forest Service, (antelope horns); D.L. Cook (California milkweed)

Milkweed is a host plant for monarch caterpillars

Though adult monarch butterflies sip nectar from many flowers, monarch caterpillars feed exclusively on milkweed plants, specifically those in the genus Asclepias. Monarch butterflies lay their eggs on milkweed plants so their larvae, or caterpillars, have an instant food source once the eggs hatch. Chemicals in the milkweed are ingested by the caterpillars which are toxic to other animals, helping protect them from predators. Caterpillars and adult butterflies are also brightly colored, a natural warning that this insect is toxic.

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How to keep milkweed from taking over your garden

Many people consider milkweed a weed, but go ahead and plant those pretty “weeds.” The monarchs will thank you. However, if you are worried about these plants spreading too much or your neighbors complain, there are a few things you can do:

Contain milkweed rhizomes

Since milkweeds multiply through underground rhizomes and by seed, keep a small milkweed clump contained by sinking 12- to 18-inch plastic or metal edging into the ground around the plants. Or periodically spade into the ground around the base of the plants and remove any wandering rhizomes from the soil.

Remove seed pods

You’ll also want to cut green seed pods off so they can’t produce seed. It won’t bother the monarchs — they feed on leaves and stems as caterpillars and nectar as adults, so they won’t even notice the pods are gone!

BY: Jennifer Howell


Author: Dennis Hickey

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