All members of the genus  Asclepias are appealing to Monarch butterflies and caterpillars. Nine species grow in Kane County but only four are available at local nurseries. I’m going to show you six more today.   Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) is, by far, the best butterfly attractant.   The dense, domed, dusty pink, delightfully fragrant blossoms bloom at the top of 3-5’ tall, branched, hairy stems in July and August.  Numerous opposite dark green leaves intervene between the blossoms. It is found  in a great variety of disturbed, unshaded habitats, along railroad tracks, roadsides, and in cornfields.  It is also found in prairies, dry pastures, and the foredunes of Lake Michigan.

Since the advent of Monsanto’s Round-up Ready corn and soybeans, however, farmers spray their fields with the herbicide Round-up that destroys everything except the immune crops.

Researchers: GM Crops Are Killing Monarch Butterflies, After All—By Tom Philpott | Wed Mar. 21, 2012 10:00 AM PDT

The researchers estimate that the amount of milkweed in in the Midwest plunged by 58 percent from 1999 to 2010, pressured mainly by the expansion of Roundup Ready genetically engineered crops. Over the same period, monarch egg production in the regions sank by 81 percent. And it turns out that monarchs tend to lay more eggs on milkweeds that sprout up in and around cultivated fields. So when farmers snuff out the milkweeds with Roundup, they’re exerting a disproportionate effect on monarchs.

The answer?  Many groups, including The Wild Ones, have started campaigns to “Plant Milkweed.” Plant it in your own yard; encourage your neighbors, schools, municipalities, churches, and parks to do so, also.

Let’s take a look at other native milkweed that grows in  the area:

Swamp Milkweed (Asclepias incarnata)  at the Chicago Botanic Garden 7/25/08

Rounded clusters of dark and light pink flowers bloom  at the top of  2-4’ erect stems of the Swamp Milkweed from late June to late August.  Narrow lance-shaped leaves cover its smooth stems.  It  is common in wet meadows, marshes, and wetlands, but in my experience, is difficult to grow in the home garden.  It needs constant moisture to thrive, such as a marsh or a shoreline.  it didn’t do well in my rain garden, because the moisture fluctuated from wet to dry.  Perhaps others of you have had different experiences.

I found a lovely patch of Whorled Milkweed (Asclepias verticillata) growing in our church prairie last September, but did not get a decent photo.

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, railroad tracks, and abandoned fields.

Whorled Milkweed  Photo by Jack Shouba

Sally Wasowski tells us in Gardening with Prairie Plants that while Whorled Milkweed is considered weedy in the Chicago area, it displays masses of delicate white flowers within Little Bluestem prairies just west and south of us–sounds lovely, doesn’t it? .

I’ve never seen it in a garden situation, so I don’t know what to suggest.  If anyone has any experience or knowledge, please share.

These two milkweeds, along with Common Milkweed and Butterfly Weed are fairly easy to find in local commerce.  The following are more difficult to find and one will probably have to order them from a catalog.  If any of you readers are involved in the trade, take heed.

I  planted Prairie Milkweed (Asclepias sullivantii) one year, many years ago, but it only lasted a couple of seasons.  One to several rounded flower clusters bloom at the top of the 3-4’ tall, smooth hairless plant. It is similar to Common Milkweed–its flowers, however, are larger and a deeper pink; it doesn’t grow as tall; and it is glabrous rather than pubescent.  Dick Young says it more succinctly: “It is a handsome, erect perennial similar to the Common Milkweed, without fuzz. “   In nature, Prairie Milkweed it is found in mesic or moist prairie or occasionally, roadside ditches.   it is rhizomatous, but waits several years before spreading under ground.

Sullivan’s Milkweed  (note caterpillar)  Photo by Jack Shouba

I’ve never seen the uncommon Purple Milkweed (Asclepias purpurescens), but I definitely want to.   Dick Young calls it an elegant perennial with “strikingly beautiful purple-pink blossoms in late June and early July.”  It grows 2-3’ tall.  It is found in mesic prairie, but more often at woodland edges and thickets.

Purple Milkweed  Photo by Jack Shouba


Don’t confuse Poke Milkweed with Pokeweed.

Poke Milkweed (Asclepias exaltata) is a high quality, uncommon plant–its species name tells it all;  Pokeweed (Phytolacca americana), on the other hand, is, well, a weed.

Poke Milkweed, at 6’, is a stately woodland denizen. It is found along roads in semi-shade, says Swink & Wilhelm, but I have never seen it.   Its flowers are always described as drooping–but drooping sounds so sad and this is not a sad plant–it’s exalted, for goodness sake.  Should we call the umbel flowers nodding or dangling?  Dripping?  Cascading?  Or how about arching?  Hanging like Christmas tree ornaments?  Like fireworks exploding?

How would you describe the exquisite blossoms?   Take a look for yourself–isn’t it gorgeous?  I definitely want some of these.

Poke Milkweed   Photo by Jack Shouba

I rarely write about anything that I’m not familiar with, but this has been an exception and  a real learning experience for me; I hope it has been for you, as well.

While I know Common Milkweed is the most attractive milkweed to Monarchs, I was not able to find any information on the web about the degree of popularity of the other species of Asclepias.  Do any of you have that information?

I would suggest that we all plant some of each kind.   While only Monarch caterpillars eat the leaves of milkweed species, many, many other butterflies nectar on the flowers.

These less well-known native milkweeds will be a beautiful and useful addition to your gardens and are worth seeking out.

I want to thank Jack Shouba, once again, for his stunning photographs.  I can always count on Jack to supply the perfect photo when I don’t have one that is appropriate.

Jack is a retired high school biology and chemistry teacher, Morton  Arboretum Instructor, naturalist for Campton Township, and avid nature photographer.

In addition, in his words:   Proud loser of a ‘best lawn” contest, along with Pat Hill 🙂

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  1. medina gross July 12, 2013 at 7:07 pm #

    Great post!

  2. Suzanne Massion July 12, 2013 at 7:24 pm #

    Jack Shouba’s photo of A. exaltata make the flowers look like a delicate fireworks burst of white blooms. I think I saw a monarch among our common milkweed yesterday. Not sure. is there another butterfly that is similar?

    • Pat Hill July 12, 2013 at 7:40 pm #

      There’s a lot of orange and black butterflies; the viceroy looks just like the monarch. But the monarch is the most common, so I would guess it was a monarch. I haven’t seen as many butterflies as usual, but I haven’t seen hardly any mosquitoes, either.

  3. Pat Glen July 13, 2013 at 5:55 am #

    Pat, wonderful information and beautiful photos…thank you.

    PS. I found your mosquitos!

  4. Peggy Timmerman July 13, 2013 at 7:54 am #

    We have poke milkweed growing in a savanna area at the edge of some woods. The nodding white flowers really pop out at you in the dappled light. I am always very excited to see it bloom, although the flower buds are frequently the target of insect predation (don’t know what insect). I have never seen it get over 3 feet tall, however. It grows near the equally rare upland boneset, so that is a special site. Our goat prairie also has a lot of whorled milkweed, I can’t imagine anyone calling it weedy.
    Thanks for the great photos.

    • Pat Hill July 13, 2013 at 8:32 am #

      Thanks for all the wonderful feedback, Peggy. I looked up upland boneset in Swink % Wilhelm’s Plants of the Chicago Region and it has only been seen in 5 sites in the entire 22 counties that comprise the Chicago Region. That is rare. I don’t know what a goat prairie is?

  5. Carol Rice July 14, 2013 at 8:48 am #

    Hi Pat – We have a fair amount of whorled milkweed in one of our prairie gardens. It was part of the seed mix that was used to establish this garden in 2005. It is reputed to be pretty toxic to domestic livestock.

    We also have swamp milkweed in another prairie garden that was established in an area that had more of a moist soil. It has thrived, and even spread to areas that are drier.

    You are welcome to come and see our plantings.

  6. PATTY July 15, 2013 at 5:07 pm #

    Which type of milkweed produces the seed pods we used in elementary school to make Christmas ornaments and other arts and crafts? In the 50’s we gathered the pods, dried and cleaned them and decorated them with spray pain and /or glitter. I don’t remember seeing the flowers or butterflies around the plants. Is this the same type of plant? Sorry for the simple unscientific question.

    Interesting post.

  7. Pat Hill July 15, 2013 at 6:03 pm #

    It would have been Common Milkweed–I bet kids still do that.

  8. Rebecca Gale-Gonzalez July 16, 2013 at 9:41 am #

    A delight to read and see. Thank you for the education. I have common milkweed, butterfly weed and swamp milkweed happily dispersing in different parts of my garden. The swamp milkweed started at the birdbath, but moved to the dry rock garden at the edge of the driveway and near the shade of the grapevine. I have had a beetle eating the blooms of the butterfly weed – it looks like a lady bug on steroids. Anyway, I’ve found that nature finds a way to adapt to its circumstance and in my garden that means drought and lack of water and they are all doing fine.

  9. Kathee Thumm August 6, 2013 at 10:49 am #

    Is Joe Pie Weed a member of the milkweed family? I was told it was by a “naturalist” who gardens in Nr. Wisc.

    • PatHill August 6, 2013 at 11:06 am #

      No, Joe Pye Weed (Eupatorium purpureum) is NOT a member of the Milkweed family.

      The Milkweed family name is Asclepiadaceae, which contains 3 genera, the most familiar one is Asclepias. There are 15 members of the genus Asclepias that grow in the Chicago Region, all of them called “Milkweed”.

      The genus Eupatorium is a member of the Compositae or Sunflower family.
      Joe Pye Weed is, however, very attractive to butterflies and i would advocate planting it for that purpose.

  10. Nancy Weiss September 9, 2013 at 9:35 am #

    Pat: Thanks for all the info on the different milkweeds!.
    This past year we discovered Prairie Milkweed (AKA Sullivan’s Milkweed) (Asclepias sullivanti) in our Wildflower Sanctuary on the Batavia Riverwalk . . (- thanks to Bob Lootens’ sharp eyes!).
    The leaves have a VERY-VERY smooth-feel, almost as if they had been waxed! A very nice plant!
    (No Monarch-landings discovered so far . . . but then we haven’t seem ANY monarchs anywhere!)
    These Prairie Milkweed plants, we have to assume, were in the original seedings by Ernie LeDuc when he and his wife started our “Little Prairie” at our Wildflower Sanctuary back in 1991. The seeds, we think, were from the DuPage Wild Ones and from LeDuc’s good friend Russell Kirt (College of DuPage & author of “Prairie Plants of the Midwest: Identification and Ecology.”).

  11. Maryann December 17, 2015 at 5:23 am #

    Is it taking too long?

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