When And How To Plant Milkweed

Milkweed is a blooming flower that is not only beautiful to look at but also provides substantial food and shelter for many different kinds of insects. The pink blooms also provide an aromatic fragrance that is not too overpowering. It’s easy to plant, grow and cultivate, making it a great addition to any garden space. 

It is best planted in the fall, so it can naturally undergo cold stratification. Only plant locally grown seeds and don’t use pesticides. Milkweed provides ample nectar and pollen for many insects, including Monarchs, which are dependent on milkweed for survival.

Planting milkweed is very easy and can go a long way in helping our insects and ecosystem. And with no need to transplant or fertilize, once milkweed has been planted, there isn’t much more to do with it except enjoy the view as many different butterflies feed from its nectar-rich blooms.

What is Milkweed?

Close-up view of emerging rosy pink blossoms and buds on a swamp milkweed plant

Milkweeds are North American wildflowers that are known for attracting Monarch butterflies. They produce clusters of fragrant pink flowers that attract butterflies and other pollinators.

These perennials typically grow 5 feet tall. They are best planted in bunches, but one plant can provide countless other plants by its extensive root system from the mother plant. 

They flourish in many different environments, from meadows in the east to the Rocky Mountains and southern Canada. There is a type of milkweed for every climate.

The four types of milkweed include the Whorled Milkweed, Common Milkweed, Swamp Milkweed, and Butterfly Milkweed. Whorled, Common, and Butterfly Milkweed thrive in dry environments, while Swamp Milkweed does best in wetter areas, indicating its name.

Milkweed is also a favored home to Monarch butterflies and other beneficial insects and is the only plant monarch caterpillars eat, making them wholly dependent on it to survive. 

When Should I Plant Milkweed?

The ideal time to plant milkweed seeds is in the fall when the cold temperatures and moisture help stimulate germination. The cool temperatures bring the seedling out of its waxy shell, and without having this cold then warm germination, the seeds will not be able to grow.

This is called cold stratification and is required for milkweed to grow.

However, if you are planting in the spring, you need first to start them indoors. Place the seeds in a bowl of either soil or moist paper towels, and then put them in the fridge to stimulate those cold fall temperatures.

This is called artificial stratification, which will work the same as cold stratification, just indoors rather than outside during a colder season.

Whether you decide to plant them in the spring or fall, you want to keep them indoors for 4 to 8 weeks before moving them outside. In the spring, you want to have them planted before the summer heat sets in, and for fall planting, you need ample time before the first frost to let them establish a root system. 

Tips for Planting Milkweed

Planting milkweed is pretty straightforward after the cold stratification period. Still, a few things can make the process easier and help establish healthy plants that will keep returning yearly.

  • Milkweed needs full sun locations since it is traditionally a meadow wildflower.
  • Light, well-drained soil works best, with the seeds planted about a quarter-inch deep and 18” apart.
  • If you want to harvest milkweed seeds, you’ll know the right time to do so when the pods pop open under slight pressure.
  • Milkweed is a tuber plant; more will sprout from a mother plant over time.
  • They do not transplant well as they have extensive root systems.
  • If planting a seedling instead of a seed, you’ll want to have the top of the root ball, even with the soil line, not sunken in or mounded.
  • Milkweed does not constantly like moist conditions unless it is the Swamp Milkweed variety.
  • You don’t need to fertilize milkweed, which can do well in poor soils.

Planting the Right Kind of Milkweed

When planting milkweed, it’s vital to plant native-grown plants. However, purchasing non-native milkweed can hurt a butterflies health. This limitation is because tropical milkweed survives northern winters and allows a parasite known as ophryocystis elektroscirrha to build to dangerous levels and infect both the milkweed plant and the monarchs.

On the flip side, planting native milkweed allows the plants to die in the winter and stop this parasite from reaching those dangerous amounts. Don’t worry, though. Milkweed is a perennial and will come back the following year.

It’s important to note that just because you purchase seeds or plants from a local vendor does not mean the seeds are local. Therefore, you must ask where the seeds came from before purchasing and, if possible, harvest them yourself. 

Do not plant milkweed if you live north of Santa Barbara within 5 miles of the California coast. It is not natural vegetation, and other nectar-rich flowers would do much more for our Monarchs.

Growing Nectar-Rich Flowers

Planting nectar-rich flowers help those new Monarch butterflies and other nectar-eating insects to find the food they need to survive. For instance, Monarch butterflies need that nectar to make it through their long winter migration to Mexico or the California coast.

When deciding what nectar-rich flowers to plant to complete your Monarch butterfly support garden, it is best to refer to what is native in your area. Planting flowers and foliage that are non-native can lead to invasive species taking over and introducing diseases and pests not common to the area. 

It is also important not to use pesticides when planting milkweed or other nectar-rich flowers so the insects don’t ingest them and get sick or die. Even if the goal of planting milkweed and nectar-rich flowers is not to attract butterflies and other pollinators, pesticides can severely hurt these insects that are vital to our ecosystem.

They also attract insects that are beneficial to many other plants and vegetables.

Will Milkweed Attract Monarch Butterflies?

Monarchs and Milkweed

Milkweed is the first and most important plant for Monarch butterflies. They are the caterpillars’ host plant, meaning they only eat milkweed for food.

Since the widespread use of pesticides began, wild-grown milkweed has become rarer, and with that comes the decline of the Monarch butterflies since they are solely dependent on this specific flower to survive. In fact, 90% of the Monarch population has died off in the last two decades. 

Not only is it food for caterpillars, but it also serves as the desired spot for them to form their chrysalis, and finally, once the butterfly emerges, it feeds on the nectar. The Monarch butterfly also lays its eggs on milkweed, making it a full life cycle plant required for the species’ survival. 

So yes, milkweed will most definitely attract Monarch butterflies.

Will Milkweed Attract Other Species of Butterfly?

Milkweed will absolutely attract other species of butterflies. Since it is among the nectar-rich flowers, any insect that feeds on nectar will be attracted to the plant, which includes all types of butterflies and pollinators.

Species like the large Eastern Tiger Swallowtail and Eastern Comma love milkweed, as well as small skipper butterflies. 

Milkweed will also attract bees since they have bundles of pollen called pollinia. Since honeybees are also in a significant decline, the abundance of pollen that milkweed offers can help the bee population too.

All sorts of insects make their homes on milkweed and feed from the plant, from ladybugs to different kinds of moths to even Praying Mantises. On top of this, birds that eat these insects will also be attracted to this plethora of insect activity.

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