How to Attract Monarch Butterflies to Your Wildlife Garden

First Monarch Butterfly of the Season

I was thrilled to see my first Monarch Butterfly of the season this year while in Austin, TX to visit the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center. And it reminded me that I want to create a more welcoming habitat for Monarchs in my Pennsylvania wildlife garden this year.

Monarch butterflies from the east coast spend the winter in Mexico as adults and then journey north and lay their eggs in the spring, with each generation moving further and further north. The last generation in the fall will not lay eggs, but fly all the way back to Mexico to spend the winter again.

It’s really easy to welcome Monarch butterflies into your wildlife habitat garden by adding more milkweed for them, because female Monarchs will only lay their eggs on milkweed plants. It’s the only plant that the caterpillars can eat.

Here in the northeast we have several good choices of  milkweed (Asclepias family) plants that will make your wildlife garden a welcoming oasis for these beautiful butterflies.

I’d only recommend the Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) if you have a large garden. This is a perfect plant in a wildflower meadow if you have space to let it run, but it can be kind of aggressive in smaller gardens.

A much better choice for smaller wildlife gardens would be the Swamp Milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) which has very pretty pink to purple flowers, and despite it’s name, does not require wet conditions to thrive in your garden. It does quite well in my garden in clay soil with no irrigation.

Another great choice to attract Monarch butterflies to your wildlife habitat garden is Butterfly Weed (Asclepias tubersosa) with it’s brilliant orange flowers. Be careful where you plant this milkweed, though because it doesn’t do as well in heavy clay soil.

Many of my wildlife gardener friends in Cape May, NJ have been planting seeds of the Tropical Milkweed (Asclepias curassavica), which can only be grown as an annual here in the northeast, but is quite easy to grow from seed.

And I can attest from spending time with my friends in their wildlife gardens that the Monarch butterflies really love to lay their eggs on this plant. Plant extra because I’ve seen caterpillars eat the stem right down to the ground. Your reward of course is to know that you’ve given the gift of habitat to these stunning butterflies in your wildlife habitat garden.

What do you do for Monarch Butterflies in your wildlife garden?

  1. says

    I raised 200+ monarchs last year, and swamp milkweed, along with the rare and vanishing sullivant’s milkweed, had the most larvae (30+ per plant). A. tuberosa attracts, on average, only 2 larvae each year (but if you want that orange, Prairie Nursery has a clay buster version that loves clay). Don’t forget to plant native asters like new england and A. laevis for fall migration–tired and hungry monarchs will thank you. Liatris ligulistylis is also a massive monarch magnet in late summer.

    • says

      Benjamin I’ve had great success with the swamp milkweed, too. The Monarchs really seem to love that. And you’re right native nectar sources are so important for adult butterflies, especially the last generation that will make that long flight to Mexico.

  2. Lisa says

    In my PA garden (zone 6b), I have many A. tuberosa but only one A. incarnata. I have raised Monarchs for 4 years so far and have never had any larvae on the A. incarnata. Last year, I had so many larvae on the A. tuberosa that I couldn’t raise all of them. I am wondering if it has to do with the Monarchs choosing whichever tuberosa host is in abundance more than having a favorite variety? However, the Monarchs (and especially the Tiger Swallowtails), loved the nectar from the incarnata.

    • says

      Lisa, sounds like we may be neighbors. I’m in Philadelphia. Isn’t it funny that my Monarchs seem to be drawn more to a different Asclepias than yours are? The A. tuberosa doesn’t do as well in my garden because it’s not fond of my heavy clay soil. I have much better success with the A. incarnata. I’m also going to try some of the A. curassavica this year, too because my Cape May friends have given me lots of seeds.

      • Lisa says

        Hi Carole,
        I am in Lancaster County now, but 10 years ago I used to live in Delaware County, so not too far from you. I would like to try other varieties of Asclepias, but I have my gardens so filled with various plants that it is hard to make room! No matter what variety we grow, I am happy that the Monarchs come for a visit! Their transformation never ceases to amaze me.

        • says

          Lisa, I went to college (many years ago) in Lancaster County, and I am very fond of that area. I hear you about making space for new plants! I’m always trying to squeeze just one more plant in, but it’s always fun when I manage it :)

  3. Lora Gurwala says

    Hello Carole and wildlife friends;
    I recently moved to Kennebunke, Maine and I am quite enjoying my free subscription to “Birds & Bloom” where I first learned of you and all you have to say. I so value your willingness to educate the “uninformed”, such as myself. thank you for all that you do.
    My property borders a government woodland conservation along one side and is quite moist, (so much so that I have wild mushrooms growing all summer long. My home faces southwest and is quite sunny with this one exception of one side bordering the woodland edge. My question to you is, what’s the best native plants, shrubs, pollinators in my area to attract more bird wildlife, butterflies,& bees? I hope you can help answer my question. Keep those comments coming. How can I receive your book” Ecosystem Gardening”?

    • says

      Hi Lora, and welcome :)
      I love Maine. It’s such a beautiful state. I’ve spent several summers there and I’ll be back up for several weeks this summer.

      Here’s a good resource to start learning about planting for wildlife from The University of Maine. It also has links to factsheets about native plants as well as plants to avoid. Kudos to you for your interest in becoming a good steward of your property!

      My book is coming shortly. I’ll announce it first in my newsletter, Wren Song. Thanks for your interest!

  4. says

    Hi Carole! I was wondering if now would be a good time to plant my Milkweed seeds? I live in NE Ohio and have harvested the seeds from the pods I found last fall. I have had them in the refrigerator for 2 months now. Any suggestons would be greatly appreciated :-)

    • says

      Shari, I think you’re ok to get your milkweed seeds in the ground now, but I’d do a quick check with your county extension office first just to verify. I just planted a bunch of them here in Philadelphia, and am now eagerly anticipating new sprouts.

  5. Bob Silver says

    Hello all

    I have introduced milkweed (now I’m not certain!) that is all over my yard; produces whitish flowers, has thick sticky stems with a long tubular root and grows to about 3 feet.

    The problem is, I have never (in three years) seen a caterpillar eating the plant leaves or spotted a chrysalis.

    It does not look like any of the milkweed images you show. Have I introduce some other weed that is not what I thought was a milkweed? Or is there a variety that is just not popular with monarchs?

    Thanks for any light you can shed on this.

    – Bob

    • says

      Hi Bob:
      I can’t think off the top of my head which Asclepias has whitish flowers. In my PA garden, I prefer the Swamp Milkweed (Asclepias incarnata). It doesn’t require moist soil and does quite well in my heavy clay soil. It has pinkish flowers. The Butterfly Weed (Asclepias tuberosa) has orange flowers, but doesn’t do well in clay soil. It’s possible you’ve planted Common Milkweed, but it has pinkish flowers, too. I’d check with your local county extension to see what you have in your garden.


  1. […] Create a Monarch Waystation. Monarch Butterflies are returning north from Mexico in search of milkweed on which to lay their eggs. You can help them on this amazing journey by adding several varieties of Asclepias (Milkweeds), and you’ll get to observe the next generation throughout its life cycle. […]

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