By Becca Badgett
(Co-author of How to Grow an EMERGENCY Garden)
The milkweed plant may be considered a weed and banished from the garden by those unaware of its special traits. True, it may be found growing along roadsides, in ditches and require removal from commercial fields. However, the reason for planting milkweed in the garden flies by in summer and enchants most who see them: Monarch butterflies.
The Milkweed Flower
The milkweed flower (Asclepias syriaca), also known as butterfly weed, is an integral part of the butterfly garden, a source of nectar for butterflies and hummingbirds. Growing milkweed supplies larvae of the Monarch with food and shelter, providing caterpillars food and a resting place before they leave the caterpillar stage and become butterflies. As the plants can be toxic; consumption of the plant protects caterpillars from predators.
Historically, the milkweed plant was valuable when grown for its medicinal properties. Today the silky material attached to its numerous seeds is sometimes used for filling in lifejackets. Seeds are contained in an attractive pod that bursts and sends seeds drifting through the air, borne by wind. This is a reason to remove seed pods when you grow milkweed plants.
How to Grow Milkweed Plants
You can easily grow milkweed plants to attract the Monarch and other flying creatures to your garden. Plant seeds of the milkweed plant indoors or direct sow outside after danger of frost has passed and soil has warmed. If the appearance of the plant is too weedy for your taste, grow milkweed plants in a hidden but sunny corner or at the back of a border.
This may lead you to wonder what does milkweed look like. The milkweed plant is an upright specimen that may reach 2 to 6 feet. Leaves grow from a thick stalk and are large and green, taking on a reddish color as the plant matures. In youth, leaves are waxy, pointed and dark green, later dropping from the stem and allowing the milky substance to exude from the growing milkweed. Stems become hollow and hairy as the plant matures. The milkweed flower is pink to purple to orange and blooms from June to August.
Growing Milkweed Seeds
Milkweed often does not begin growing in northern gardens in time to be fully beneficial to butterflies. There you can start seeds of milkweed inside so they will be ready to plant when the soil has warmed.
Milkweed plants benefit from vernalization, a process of cold treatment, before sprouting. They get this when planted outside, but to speed up the growing process, treat the seeds through stratification. Place seeds into a container of moist soil, cover with a plastic bag and refrigerate for at least three weeks. Plant into containers, if desired, and place under a grow light inside; about six weeks before soil temperatures outside have warmed. Keep the soil moist by misting, but seeds can rot if allowed to sit in soggy soil.
When plants have two sets of leaves, transplant them to their permanent, sunny location outside. Space plants about two feet apart, if planting in a row. The milkweed plant grows from a long taproot and does not like to be moved after planting outdoors. Mulch can help conserve water.
Grow milkweed plants in mixed borders, meadows and natural areas. Grow milkweed plants with tubular-shaped, shorter flowers in front of them to offer more pollen to our flying friends.