Master Milkweed in 5 Simple Steps

Help monarchs thrive by growing their favorite food in your yard.

Where there are milkweeds, there are monarchs. Watch caterpillars chow down on leaves and, later, follow mature butterflies as they fly from flower to flower sipping nectar. Use these tips to attract more monarchs with native milkweed.

1. Choose the right type for your garden.

The milkweed genus (Asclepias) has more than 140 species, and while all are native to the Americas, not all are the right fit for your garden. For instance, common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) has a wide native range, but it can spread aggressively and may not be suited to a small yard. Call your county extension office to find out which milkweeds are native to your region, and take time to learn about their growth habits and requirements before deciding which to plant.

2. Seek out local plants or seeds.

Head to your area’s native-plant nursery or find one near you at plantnative.org, then find out which milkweed plants it offers. To save money, ask friends for cuttings from their plants. (Read more: Diary of a Monarch Migration)

3. Sow seeds in fall, set out plants in spring.

If you’re starting from seed, fall is the best time to broad-sow outdoors. Many varieties contain hard coatings that have to break down before the seeds germinate, and exposure to a winter’s worth of snow and rain will do just that. If you’re buying plants, add them to your garden in spring after the danger of frost has passed.

4. Trim early seedpods, save seeds from later ones.

Once a plant starts making seeds, it stops putting energy into producing leaves and flowers. Extend the growth time of your milkweed by trimming spent flowers through midsummer. Later in the season, collect seeds by tying small bags over the pods while they mature, since many burst open to distribute their seeds far and wide. Check out Monarch Watch at monarchwatch.org for more information on how to collect and care for milkweed seeds.

Kathleen Otto (B&B reader)
Kathleen Otto (B&B reader) Two monarch caterpillars

5. Learn to recognize caterpillars, eggs, and possible pests.

Identify monarch caterpillars by their white, black, and yellow stripes. The pinhead-size eggs are white and are laid singly on the tops or bottoms of leaves. Common pests include milkweed aphids. Tiny yellow specks with black legs, they are found by the dozens clustered near the plant stem. Remove aphids by hand or blast them with the garden hose if they’re causing damage. (Read more: 11 Must-Have Host Plants)

5 NATIVE PLANTS TO TRY

  • Common (A. syriaca)
  • Butterfly weed (A. tuberosa)
  • Swamp (A. incarnata)
  • Showy (A. speciosa)
  • Aquatic (A. perennis)

Jill Staake
Jill lives in Tampa, Florida, and writes about gardening, butterflies, outdoor projects and birding. When she's not gardening, you'll find he reading, traveling and happily digging her toes into the sand on the beach.