5 Great Milkweeds to Try
By Ann Wilson, Geneva, Illinois
If you're looking to attract monarchs, adding milkweed to your yard is a no-brainer. But with a surprising number of varieties, milkweed deserves consideration for any landscape. In addition to drawing butterflies and nectar-seeking hummingbirds, the plants supply beautiful summer blooms and autumn seedpods that burst open to release downy-tufted seeds that scatter in the wind.
Milkweeds, many of which are North American natives, are generally deer-resistant, sun-loving and hardy in Zones 3 to 9. Though milkweed species share common traits, plants differ in size, flower color and cultivation requirements. Check your local native-plant sources for milkweed plants, since inventories vary by geographic area. Here's a look at five of the more commonly available milkweeds.
- Common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) appears naturally in prairies, fields, open areas and development-disturbed areas. Native to the eastern United States, common milkweed bears pink to lavender flower clusters from June through August; in late summer, it develops warty seedpods-the most striking of the milkweed pods. Tolerant of most soil types, the 4- to 6-foot plants are aggressive spreaders and should be given plenty of space to roam in backyard natural areas.
- Swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) grows in moist prairie areas, floodplains and bogs, and near waterways and ponds. Plants grow between 3 and 5 feet, and bear clusters of cinnamon-scented, deep-pink and white flowers in July and August. They do best in moist soil, but will grow well in gardens if attention is paid to watering. Not as aggressive as the common milkweed, swamp milkweed offers an array of hybridized cultivars, is a good choice for gardens, and can be planted in full sun or partial shade.
- Butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa) is often spotted growing wild in prairies and along roadsides. It's an easy-to-grow, adaptable perennial-border plant that tolerates dry soil and flourishes in most soil types, as long as the soil is well-draining. More compact than other milkweed types, butterfly weed is late to break dormancy and grows 2 to 3 feet in height. Brilliant orange, yellow or red flowers make the plants fiery standouts in gardens from June through August.
- Whorled milkweed (Asclepias verticillata) prefers its roots on the dry side, and thrives across the United States in dry prairies, fields and sandy savannas, on rocky bluffs and along roadsides. The plant's short stature, thin, whorled leaves, strap-like foliage and whitish-green flowers differentiate this plant from other milkweeds. Whorled milkweed generally blooms in late summer on plants that range from 1 to 2 feet in height.
- Showy milkweed (Asclepias speciosa) occurs naturally throughout central and western North America, growing along sandy and rocky shores and in moist prairie areas. Three- to 6-foot-tall plants boast silvery foliage and produce fragrant 3- to 5-inch clusters of dusty, rose-colored flowers from June through August. The long-lived perennial does best in moist, well-drained soil, but will tolerate dry sites. A moderate spreader, the showy milkweed is a less aggressive grower than common milkweed.