No one likes weeds in their garden, but we shouldn’t be so quick to judge a plant by its name alone. Milkweed is not a weed, but a perennial wildflower native to North America that has a very unique relationship with one of Mother Nature’s most majestic creations, the Monarch Butterfly. It is a very adaptable plant that can tolerate a variety of growing conditions, but it flourishes in locations that get lots of sun and where the soil has a tendency to be consistently moist. Homeowners that have areas of their yard that stay wet or who would like to start a rain garden might want to look into growing this plant.
There are more than 100 varieties of Milkweed, but the three most widely available to the home gardener are Common Milkweed, Swamp Milkweed, and Butterfly Weed. Butterfly Weed in particular has become popular due to its beautiful bright orange flowers and its attraction to pollinators including bees, hummingbirds, and of course, butterflies. Milkweed comes in a variety of colors including, white and pink. It grows best in garden zones 3 through 9 and while its taproot doesn’t transplant well, it is a prolific self-seeder so you’ll want to plant it in a spot where you won’t mind it spreading out. If you want to try to transplant Milkweed plants it is best to do it in the fall or early in the spring before it has started to grow leaves.
You can typically find Milkweed plants at your local garden center in the spring, but it can also be grown quite easily from seed as well. Ideally, you would plant the seed in the fall so that it could have exposure to the colder winter temperatures which will generally yield the most flowers. It blooms in July and August and depending upon the variety of plant will have a vanilla-like fragrance. If you remove the spent flowers it is possible to coax Milkweed to continue flowering into the fall. It can look particularly lovely in a wildflower garden that might also include Black-Eyed Susan, Joe Pye Weed, and Goldenrod.
Growing Milkweed is vitally important to support the Monarch Butterfly population. Horticulturists have found that a symbiotic relationship exists between the plant and the butterfly. Monarch Butterflies lay their eggs on the underside of Milkweed leaves, which the larvae consume when they emerge from the egg. This does no harm to the plant, but in doing so the larvae and resulting butterflies find themselves unattractive to predators from the toxins in the sap of the plant that they have absorbed. The nectar of the flower also feeds the butterflies who in turn pollinate the flowers as they move from bloom to bloom consuming nectar.
It is worth noting that while the sap from the Milkweed plant deters predators, it can also be an irritant to the eyes and skin of humans and animals. It is best to keep this plant away from your pet as well as small children and if you handle it please do so with gloves, long pants, and long sleeves. Gardeners are well aware of the need to support our valuable pollinators. Enjoying the “Majesty of Milkweed” in our gardens is one way to do our part to protect the most “noble” pollinator of them all, the Monarch Butterfly.