Milkweed PlantsJan. 21, 2015Master Gardener Scoop

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Milkweed Plants

By Debbie Czarnopys-White, Master Gardener

Although it’s still way too early to know when we can get out into our gardens, it’s a good time to start thinking about gardening a little differently. If there’s anyone who loves a well-ordered, neat and tidy garden, you may have to work with this way of gardening by letting go of controlling beauty. Indeed, beauty can be grown but it’s not necessarily orderly.

If you’ve listened to news or check news on the internet in any of the multiple formats, you’re aware that the monarch butterfly has been experiencing some difficult times over the last several years. Estimates are that the population decrease which began in the 1990’s is now in the approximate 90% level. Some of this is due to changing weather both in our northern areas but also in the southern and western areas of our country and other countries south of us. The other factor to consider in the decrease of monarchs is the continuing loss of habitat. This includes nectar and food source plants.

The nectar plant list can be very long but native prairie plants are excellent choices. They include boneset, black-eyed susan, blazing star, dogbane, goldenrod (not the cause of irritation, mistaken for the culprit ragweed), milkweed, New England aster, and wild bergamot. These are not the fancier or cultivar type plants but natives. Growing these may lead to the untidiness mentioned earlier. However, the joy of providing plants for wildlife to prosper and grow can outweigh the other concerns.

Okay, now getting to the food source plants. Understand that this means they will actually eat your plant. You have to be good with this. So, this is the next phase of your garden plants not looking so good. But the rewards of looking for eggs, which hatch into larvae, which in turn make pupae from which the new butterflies emerge are amazing. The new butterfly is driven by instinct to lay eggs on milkweed.  Each egg has a hard outer shell to protect the developing larva. It is lined with a layer of wax to prevent the egg from drying out. Larvae will hatch from the eggs on the milkweed leaves where they have been deposited. Know that the larvae feed only on milkweed. So that’s the type of plant I’m really recommending. Get out that magnifying glass and have fun exploring.

There are so many types of milkweed that exist but several would be best for our area. They include

* Asclepias (later abbreviated to “A.”) incarnata/swamp milkweed which is a perennial that usually grows in moist areas (but it does not require a moist location in the garden).

* A. purpurascens/purple milkweed which is similar to common milkweed has darker flowers and is much better behaved in the garden.

* A. syriaca/common milkweed which grows naturally in many areas. It can be invasive (if you care).

* A. tuberosa/butterfly weed which is more of a biennial so is not first choice for monarchs, blooming every other year.

* A. sullivantii/prairie milkweed which is less aggressive, has slightly smaller flowers, and an overall smooth appearance on the stem, leaves and seed pods. 

So, decide soon if this is the direction for your garden and start clearing out a space, hopefully large, to accommodate your garden. I’ve started to contact some local plant places to ask if they would consider ordering these plants for us and will keep my fingers crossed for positive responses.

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