Monarch Butterflies and Milkweed






Everyone knows that Monarch butterflies only lay their eggs on members of the milkweed genus and their caterpillars only eat milkweed leaves. There are, however, several species of milkweed that are more suited to gardens than the common roadside milkweed (Asclepias syriaca).

If any of you have seen my gardens at the end of June and beginning of July, you know how striking Butterfly Weed (Asclepias tuberosa) is.   (Whoever named Buddleia davidii Butterfly Bush was a marketing genius; whoever named  Butterfly Weed–not so much.)

Vibrant orange, flat-topped flower clusters bloom at the top of 1-2’ stiff upright stems from early to late June until early September.  It likes a well-drained soil, even sand or gravel, and, if happy, will seed itself about as these have next to my sidewalk.  Butterfly Weed arranges itself along sidewalk edges or next to flagstones because of its need for calcium.

Other members of the Asclepias genus are just as appealing to Monarch caterpillars. Ten species grow in Kane County but only four are available at local nurseries, including  the two mentioned above.  The other two follow:




The dense, domed, delightfully fragrant blossoms of Swamp Milkweed (Asclepias  incarnata) bloom at the top of 2-4’ tall, smooth, branched stems in July and August.  It thrives in wet areas, but will grow in mesic areas, as well.  In the wild it is common in wet prairies, marshes, fens, swales, and along the shores of ponds, streams, and rivers.

I found a lovely patch of Whorled Milkweed (Asclepias verticillata)  growing in our church prairie just last week.



Its light green, linear leaves grow in whorls around the short stems interspersed with clusters of fine, fragrant flowers, followed by shiny, slender, small pods. It is common in dry, grassy roadsides, pastures, and abandoned fields.   I/ve never seen it in a garden situation, so I don’t know what to suggest.  Perhaps in  lawn?  Would it survive mowing?    If anyone has any experience or knowledge, please share.

While only Monarch caterpillars eat the leaves of Milkweed species, many, many species of butterflies nectar on the flowers.


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4 Responses to Monarch Butterflies and Milkweed

  1. Rebecca Gale-Gonzalez August 31, 2011 at 2:08 pm #

    I’m trying the whorled milkweed in our native plant garden at the school and it seemed to disappear in the second year. Possibly didn’t get enough water in the previous season. Any tips for growing this one would be appreciated.

    • PatHill August 31, 2011 at 2:30 pm #

      I have not grown it myself–does anyone else have garden experience with plant? If so, please share.

    • Tim August 31, 2011 at 7:05 pm #

      This milkweed may not be suitable for smaller plantings because it can be quite aggressive. It prefers a dry, sandy soil. If you tried growing it in a moist soil, it may have died in the winter because the soil was not well drained. An excellent resource is

  2. Pat Hollingsworth September 1, 2011 at 7:07 pm #

    There was a patch of it at The Natural Garden that was positively SCAREY but quite pretty. Tended to exclude companions. I saw an immense planting of it a few years ago at a client’s home — substituted for a lawn in a naturalized area with “islands” of bold textured plants, shrub plantings and boulders. Quite nice but I don’t know how it would hold up over the long run. Homeowner liked it a lot.

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