Although its called Common milkweed it is now far less common than it used to be. Where once anyone who travelled country roads from Texas all the way to Canada would see these plants along the way today its almost impossible to find. Continual use of herbicides and removal of hedgerows and open spaces have reduced the population to tiny populations in few places. This has put one of our most beloved butterflies - the Monarch - at risk as it lays its eggs and its caterpillar feed on no other plant.
The good news is its pretty easy to grow once you get the seeds started. They are a little fiddly since they need a period of cold to germinate but your refrigerator can do that job for you and once you have these magnificent plants its all worth it. Devote a patch of your garden to these lovely plants, under plant them with showy flowers that also attract butterflies and hummingbirds and you will be delighted with the show nature can provide.
Common milkweed is a tall native American perennial that grows from a fleshy tap root that does not like to be moved. So plant it and forget it. Once established it will produce large pink ball flowers every year for many years to come. Due to the nasty taste of the mature leaves deer and rabbits don't eat it. so all you need to do is enjoy the show and cut the dead stems down in the fall or early spring. Simple, easy and less work for you.
We also offer Swamp Milkweed a more clump forming perennial that likes wetter areas but will grow almost anywhere.
Flowers are best described as large golf balls on stalks. Technically they are called spherical umbels and are about 2 inches ( 5cm) in diameter and composed of about 30 flowers although as many as 100 individual flowers have been recorded. Each flowers is about 0.5 inches (1.2 cm) long and consist of five pink petals in an wide pentagon shape with noticeable stigma and stamens in the center. Flowers are followed by large seed pots up to 5 inches (12.7 cm) long. These are pale green and covered in bumps. The pods eventually turn brown, spilt open and release dozens sometimes hundreds of flat brown seeds on silky white 'parachutes' that ensure good wind dispersal.
Stems are normally about 3 feet (1 m) in height but in good conditions can grow as tall as 5 feet ( 1.5m). If any part of the plant is damaged it exudes a sticky white sap which is what gives these plants their name.
Mark where you planted them! Its easy to forget by time spring comes, familiarize yourself with what small seedlings look like so you don't accidently remove them while weeding the bed.
However most people don't starting thinking about purchasing seeds until late winter or early spring so artificial means will be necessary. then there are several different methods you can choose between depending on your space, location and time. See our Stratification Instructions for full details.
Once stratification is completed bring your plants into the light and grow as normal seeds but still keeping them slightly cooler to begin with, increase temperatures over time but do not go above 73 F (22.7 C) until after the seeds have germinated and begun to grow well.
Milkweeds produce taproots that don't like to be disturbed so once the roots have started to grow on your little plants you don't want to disturb them or it could stunt their growth. For this reason planting seeds in compostable pots is the best option. Choose ones that don't contain any artificial material or mesh as these do not decompose. If plants begin to grow larger and its still not time to plant them out put pot into a larger compostable pot or make some out of newspaper using a pot maker. If choosing this method use only black and white paper not colored as inks are not considered organic (black ink is). Grow plants on until at least 2 inches (5 cm) tall before planting out. Ensure plants are well hardened off before transplanting to their final location
If you did not use compostable pots and disturbed the roots when you transplanted the plant may drop all its leaves as it goes into shock. They hate having their roots disturbed. However in most cases once it has reestablished its roots it will begin to grow again but it will be far behind those that had healthy roots and plants may be stunted for years.
Milkweeds are not fussy about soil type but it must be well drained, does not survive in wet soils. Once established this plant takes very little care. cut down dead stalks in winter or early spring is all that really needed.
Water sparingly. Just keep the soil moist when plant are new but once its established and begins to take off maybe once a week if there is no rain and some watering in prolonged drought is all that will be needed.
If growing for Monarchs remember the caterpillars EAT the plant. So you need a lot of plants. One here and there will not to the job, you need a fairly large block of plants together so the butterflies can find them and the caterpillars don't starve if they eat out one plant. If they have to travel a long distance (by caterpillar standards) to find another plant they may die before they reach it. Keep other plants close at hand. It is also important to realize that your plants may be decimated by caterpillars and almost eaten to the ground. Offering far more material than they can eat ensures they have enough food and the plants have enough to recover and produce leaves for next year. One or two plants are not going to help and you many loose your plants if they get eaten out entirely.
Since Common Milkweeds are tall plants they can be grown in conjunction with other smaller plants beneath them to make an attractive pollinator garden. Things like alyssum, thyme or even larger plants like catnip, anise hyssop and other good pollinator plants can be mixed with them.
While Monarchs are one of the few butterflies that lay their eggs on the plant multitudes of others visit the flowers to feed on the nectar and pollen. Many other butterflies, native bees, moths and even hummingbirds visit the flowers. However the strong compounds in the leaves make it unpalatable to most wildlife so its deer and rabbit proof.
The flowers having a very high nectar content can be boiled down in a syrup or reduced further into something like brown sugar.