Milkweed is best known for its ability to attract and host the spectacular monarch butterfly. Different varieties of milkweed are often used when butterfly gardening (designing a garden or garden bed to attract butterflies), though often they are called 'butterfly plant' or 'butterfly weed' instead of named as milkweed.
Milkweed earned its common name from the milk-like sap that seeps out when the plant is injured; this sap is a bitter latex that discourages most animals and insects from eating the plant. Some, like the monarch, have adapted to eat and thrive on the plant. They gain protection from other creatures that avoid the plant, and they pick up a nasty flavor and poisonous of their own that means they are less likely to be eaten; predators learn to recognize the vividly striped caterpillars and gorgeous bronze and black butterflies as something that makes them ill.
With the growth of towns and farms and decrease of available wild patches of milkweeds, monarchs are having a harder time finding the plants that they need for feeding and nurturing their young. Gardeners can provide that in their yards and fields.
It is no strain or loss of space to devote space in your garden to milkweed. The colorful, abundant purple, lavender, orange, or white flowers and large, oval, vividly green leaves make a strikingly beautiful plant. Milkweeds average 3 feet tall, with some varieties being shorter and a few growing taller, up to 5 feet. Many types have an attractive perfume and beautiful the air as much as they beautify the view.
Milkweed flowers are some of the most complex in nature, almost as complex as orchids. As such, only native insects (like the butterflies) will be able to drink the nectar and carry the pollen; non-native insects like honey bees are not able to reach the nectar and may even be trapped by the flowers.
To start milkweed from seed, you can simply sow it into prepared soil directly after danger of frost is past. Some of the seeds will probably sprout. However, for the best germination, you use a process called stratification. Stratification is preparing dormant seeds for germination by putting them through processes that mimic the natural condition they would find in the wild between seeding and sprouting.
For most kinds of milkweed, you use cold moist stratification. This means you expose the seeds to a cool, moist environment for a period of time.
You can do this by putting the seeds in a plastic bag that contains a moist vermiculite or a wet paper towel or coffee filter. If you use the towel or filter, wet it down and fold the seeds inside the moist paper, then put the folded paper seed package in the plastic bag. Put the plastic bag inside a food container; this helps keep them from being exposed to too much light and keeps you from squashing them when you put food in the refrigerator. Put this package in your refrigerator for 4 weeks. Do not freeze.
After 4 weeks in cold, moist conditions, remove the seeds from the package. You can plant them in sprouting trays inside or sow directly into your garden. Keep seedlings consistently moist for the first three weeks
There are a few types that are tropical; you would start these in a covered bowl of water put in a warm, well-lit place, and plant out after the weather has warmed and you see the seeds sprouting.
Milkweed needs full sun and grows best in well-drained soil. They are hardy, though, and will grow in clay-like soils as well. They are drought-resistant, though they prefer regular rains or water enough to keep the soil slightly moist but not soaked.
If you prune off the tops of the stems after the plants are at least a foot tall, you will get more branching out and a bushier plant. Then let them grow up so that you have flowers.
Milkweed spreads from the top and the bottom - it grows from the seeds that float away in the wind and spreads out from the rhizomes (roots). This makes it excellent for wildflower fields.
Even after the flowers have passed, the distinctive seedpods are interesting to see. The seed pods can be dried and used as accents in floral arrangements or in crafts.
The seeds are attached to fluffy filaments that allow them to be carried on the wind. These filaments are warm and insulating. During WWII, milkweed floss was used to stuff life jackets. The fluffiness and loft compare well with down feathers, but they are hypoallergenic. Milkweed floss is grown commercially now to fill hypoallergenic pillows, comforters, and coats. It makes effective insulation.
Milkweed floss has also been called 'milkweed silk' and used as an exotic fiber, woven into cloth.
Many varieties have fibrous stems; the fibers can be used to make rope, cords, and baskets. Native peoples used them for such; milkweed fiber artifacts have been dated back well over two thousand years.
Milkweed is a useful companion plant; growing it near other plants can deter some types of garden pests such as wireworms.
Some parts of certain types of milkweed plants can be used in cooking and herbal medicine. (The genus name Asclepias, derives from the name of the Greek god of medicine.) However, most of the plants are actively poisonous and it takes extensive preparation to remove the danger. Do not eat your milkweed plants unless you've received significant training in recognizing which plants and parts of plants are safe and how to prepare them.
To start your own lovely milkweed patch or butterfly garden, visit our extensive seed collection. There are over 160 types of milkweed; we've chosen some of the most beautiful and friendly-to-grow varieties for our seeds.