Plant Milkweed, Before It’s Too Late! I Mean It!

I don’t want to put a damper on anybody’s holiday. The New York Times didn’t ask me if now would be the best time to run another article on efforts to halt the rapid decline of Monarch Butterflies. But they did run it today, and people should read it.

Actually, the issue was presented in the context of efforts to get more milkweed planted –  in gardens and in open spaces of all kinds – in order to prevent Monarch extinction.

Monarch Butterfly
Monarch Butterfly

However they present it, though, the situation is pretty dire. For instance, there is a monarch count conducted every year by the University of Northern Iowa on 100 acres of prairie.  In 2010, 176 monarchs were found. In 2013 it was down to 11.

The problem is that the high demand for corn is bringing lots of marginal land into production, land that used to be full of milkweed. As I’m sure you know, monarch caterpillars eat only milkweed – so no milkweed, no monarchs.  The growing market for corn is caused in part by ethanol subsidies, subsidies brought to us by agribusiness and their friends in Congress.

Monarch Butterfly
Monarch among Swamp Milkweed.

Also, there isn’t nearly as much milkweed growing wild among the crops, thanks to the use of herbicide-resistant corn and soybeans.

So growing milkweed in gardens, roadsides, utility rights of way and other open spaces is critical. This is especially true in the Midwest and Central Plains. Conservationists are doing as much as they can.

Butterflyweed, Asclepias tuberosa

In my garden, Milkweed is plentiful. There’s Butterflyweed (Asclepias tuberosa) for dry, sunny areas.

Swamp Milkweed
Swamp Milkweed

There’s Swamp Milkweed (A. incarnata) for sunny, moist areas.

And Purple Milkweed (A. purpurescens) that tolerates part shade.

Purple Milkweed
Purple Milkweed

You can also grow Common Milkweed (A. syriaca), though it tends to be very aggressive. Sullivant’s Milkweed (A. sullivantii) is similar to the Common Milkweed, but reportedly better behaved.

This year I saw hardly any monarchs, and I wondered if the monarch’s decline had gone past the tipping point. However, I’m not willing to throw in the towel. Plus, the Milkweeds I grow are very garden-worthy plants.

Are you growing Milkweeds in your garden? Do you have plans to plant any?

53 Comments on “Plant Milkweed, Before It’s Too Late! I Mean It!

  1. I hear Peter, Paul & Mary singing “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” in the background of this post. Good for you and those growing milkweed but ethanol subsidies is the biggest problem here but once Congress lays a golden egg, she’s not good at tying her tubes any time soon. Press some in a book somewhere. Maybe the only way to share with grand kids someday. Sad state of affairs, Jason.

    • It is sad, Patrick. However, the fate of the monarch is not yet completely sealed. We may as well do what we can do, then at least we can say we made an effort.

  2. Very good post! Our extension office just sent out info on a project they will be doing this spring regarding milkweed, encouraging people to plant it. I have my eyes on several varieties from Annie’s Annuals and have grown butterfly weed before. I agree, any area (even small) we can plant with some milkweed will help. I need to learn more about the varieties available and growth habit!

  3. We used to see a lot of Monarchs as the garden is in what used to be a meadow and there is a large patch of A. syriaca. However last year we saw only two. We had a friend (she passed away last year) who used to collect Asclepia plants that had Monarch eggs on them, would put them in vases indoor and would “raise” the butterflies. Apparently, left to themselves outside, a great many eggs get eaten by earwigs. She would release many dozens every summer.

    • It is discouraging when there is lots of milkweed but no caterpillars. But as I say, I’m not ready to give up yet.

  4. I have orange milkweed growing in my garden, and I harvested seeds from it this year that I’m planning to sow. But we don’t actually get monarchs here in the PNW, so any butterflies that will benefit from it will just nectar from it.

    • Milkweeds are still a great nectaring plant for pollinators, even if you don’t have Monarch butterflies.

  5. The underlying problem are the continuously growing population and this hunger for growth and more growth which slowly destroys the planet and ourselves. I like and have milkweeds but I think planting more won’t save us from disaster.

    • Certainly we cannot counter the severe environmental problems we face by any one action taken by individuals. Even so, I choose to make my small contribution, and hope that collectively we will find the wisdom to take the strong actions needed to save ourselves (making small contributions to trying to bring that about, as well).

  6. I do plant the annual variety each year and save lots of the seeds for planting the next year. I’ll try some of the perennial sort, your pix are lovely!
    I’ve never seen a monarch here in my Maryland garden though… In fact, it seems there are fewer of ANY sort of butterfly these days. Sad…

    • I also noticed a shortage of butterflies of all kinds. I have grown the tropical milkweed, I think I do prefer the native perennial kinds – give them a try!

  7. What a tangled web we weave with our current processes. We have enjoyed gardening for butterflies for years, allowed one whole planting bed to be taken over by Milkweed, registered our yard as a Monarch Way Station, and have always been rewarded with visits that lasted for weeks. Pure delight. This year we saw not one butterfly. Hear me roar Monsanto?

    • Same here. Hoping for better next year. I’m thinking of planting more types of host plants for other butterflies as well.

  8. I have a lot of orange milkweed but have struggled to make the swamp milkweed happy. I relocated 4 plants this fall to a spot that I think will be moist and sunny enough for them. I had monarch caterpillars this fall but not that many. Can you give me more info – or an entire – post on growing purple milkweed? I haven’t had much luck with that since it’s only available by seed. Did you find plants? I let my orange milkweed go to seed and hope that some of the seeds will blow into the few open areas close to me. Our Washington Post ran a similar article. So sad and infuriating… 😦

    • For me purple milkweed has been kind of tricky. I have one clump that is getting by, though not thriving, and another that died. I do think it is beautiful and it tolerates more shade than other milkweeds. I’ve mail ordered purple milkweed plants from Shooting Star Nursery in Kentucky.

  9. It really is an important issue this year. The NY Times has done a great job educating the public in their numerous articles the last few years, but some factions of science are taking a bit of an issue saying they are sensationalizing it into an isolated problem and not seeing the larger picture. You probably know from my research, that I feel the problem is a symptom of a greater issue at hand. It is even greater than global warming. Like I have said and Annette mentioned above, it is too many people. And most are doing things not in concert with the environment, ruining any hope that is left for recovering a planet which we all can share with humans and wildlife alike. There is no answer to this arm of the problem either.

    I have posted on planting milkweed myself, but take on the larger picture by planting it on public lands that will never be sprayed, so it can multiply and grow unimpeded. I was hoping more would follow suit. Planting it my city garden – yes it is here – will do little in a broken wildlife corridor. Very few Monarchs were seen in this area last year as were other butterfly species, but their plight is not as widely known. There has been decline on others as well. Look at the Snowy owl this year. That will be another we will see in the news in future years. Habitat and food source, disappearing.

    • I’ve thought about spreading seeds on some open spaces where they are likely to be allowed to grow. I’ll have to try that next year.

    • For now I hope that if enough people keep planting there will be a critical mass that will start to bring back the monarchs.

  10. The two trees that fell near the river have provided a sunny spot (my first!), so I’ll add some there. Happy holidays and safe travels. I’m looking forward to hearing about your trip.

  11. The monarch workshop at a local county park counter 0 (ZERO) evidence of eggs or cocoons this year. I usually see some monarchs in my backyard, but never anything on my milkweed – probably not a large enough planting. “Flight Behavior” by Barbara Kingsolver is a novel that presents a lot of the science behind this disappearance. Very sad stuff.

    • I’ve heard ‘Flight Behavior’ was a good book, but I’ve been reluctant to read it. ‘Prodigal Summer’ touches on some similar issues.

  12. Very well-said, Jason. As you probably know, I feel the same way and am trying to make a difference. In my garden here at home, I have Swamp Milkweed, Butterflyweed, and Purple Milkweed. I don’t know if the Butterflyweed will come back, because it didn’t seem to do very well. I also planted seeds from Whorled Milkweed–which we have up at our cottage. It will be interesting to see which plants come back next spring … and if the monarchs will make a comeback. I hope so. These efforts have helped in the past, for example with bald eagles, wolves, and wild turkeys. But there are so many examples of how humans have caused the extinction of species, too. Still, in my opinion it’s important to try to save them.

    • I have found that butterflyweed can be difficult to get established. But once it takes, it has tremendous staying power. Prairie Nursery has a Butterflyweed for clay variety that can establish where other Butterflyweed will not.

  13. Yes, I have already planted it! I think my garden are a isn’t the best, but I planted it anyway. I am also monitoring some places where more can be planted.

    • There may be a species of Milkweed that is better adapted to the conditions in your garden. They are generally not demanding plants it the basic conditions are provided.

  14. Here in Nebraska, we didn’t see many butterflies at all, and I don’t remember seeing any monarchs. SO SAD!! We do have milkweeds growing wild, and I’ll remember to gather seeds in the fall and try to broadcast them. Thanks for this!

    • Most people seem to be saying butterflies were sparse in their areas, but there were a few exceptions, so there may be hope yet.

  15. May sound dumb, but I didn’t see any Milkweed for sale this last season. Does it grow easily from seeds? Thank you so much for the urgent reminder. This brings me back to the book that exposed me to Monarchs and made me search out butterfly trees in Pacific Grove, CA: “The Butterflies Come” by Leo Politi. I read it as a child (1950s) and it was magical. When I finally saw the trees for myself, they were even more magical.

  16. I think I saw a grand total of 1 Monarch this fall. 😦 I’ve got purple milkweed, orange milkweed, and swamp milkweed, and common milkweed grows wild here, but certainly can add more, and will.

  17. I didn’t see as many monarchs as usual this past season, but there were a few that stayed around for a couple weeks or so.

    I grow purple, showy, swamp, common, and butterfly milkweed. I actually did not plant the common milkweed, but have been able to keep it in the space I’ve allotted to it for about 5 years. Last year was the first time it started coming up far away from the parent clump, but once pulled, they didn’t persist.

    Thank you for posting this, along with the information.

  18. Oooooh, I have to try some of that Purple Milkweed in the new shadier “Hosta Row” section of my garden! I let Common Milkweed grow in my sidewalk. That’s where it chose to grow – people have to walk around it – I won’t cut it down!

    • A sidewalk is probably better than a flower bed, in that it won’t be able to take over, plus pedestrians can enjoy the fragrance. Purple milkweed is definitely worth trying, though it can be a little finicky.

  19. I plant milkweed in my garden. And yes Monarchs have visited, although I don’t think they have laid any eggs. I keep hoping they will

  20. I have a 12 acre field which has gradually come up in milkweed. I am bound by the field’s tax classification to generate an income from it. Til now I have been harvesting the wood from the border to meet my quota but need to now utilize the field as a revenue stream. 2 summers ago when I drove thru the field clouds of butterflies which i now realize are Monarch would rise us as I drove along. Not so much last summer although they were still abundant. I am considering tilling the field as I need now to derive an income from it. I would be happy to leave it fallow if there were some subsidy to enable that to happen. I’ve found nothing on line. Anyone have any suggestions?

    • You certainly can in Illinois, I don’t know North Texas well. If you’re unsure I’d rig up some shade for it while it is small. What kind were you going to plant?

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