Summer is coming closer. The days are becoming longer and gardening books are coming in the mail. Now is the time to look around your yard and begin plans for your garden. If you are like me, one of the wonderful things about spring is watching butterflies flitting around through the air, from plant to plant. If you would like to encourage more butterflies to visit your yard and garden, it is important to plant the right plants. Butterflies gravitate to certain plants more than others and here are a few of their favorites.
The butterfly weed, also known as milkweed or Asclepias tuberosa grows three feet tall and spreads one foot wide. Don't let the term "weed" throw you. Monarch butterflies love this plant. The adults drink the nectar and will lay their eggs on the underside of young leaves. When the caterpillars hatch, they eat the plants leaves, but other than that, they don't hurt or kill the plants in any way. When the Monarch caterpillars eat the milkweed, they consume cardiac glycoside found in the milkweed. This substance, when consumed by the caterpillars, makes them taste terrible. So the predators have learned to leave them alone.
The orange flowers appear in the summertime and they resemble double stars. There is one big star with a smaller star at the center. Butterfly weeds grow in zones 3 through 9. This plant can spread by reseeding itself back. The common milkweed can increase by underground shoots. If you don't want them to spread, remove the seeds before the pods burst open and place a root barrier down so the roots can't grow beyond that perimeter. If you do plant this for the butterflies, you may want to mark the area where it is growing. Milkweeds emerge late in the spring. Milkweeds aren't fussy about the soil they grow in. they do well in drought conditions and wet soil. The butterfly weed has a long tap root, so plant them in an area that you'll want them to stay. Once they are established, they are very hard to transplant.
Other Milkweed Varieties
- Prairie milkweed (Asclepias sullivantii) has smooth stems and the leaves sweep upwards. The pink flowers heads are large. Hardy in zones 4 through 9.
- "Hello Yellow' butterfly weed, asciepias tuberosa has yellow flowers. Hardy in zones 4 through 9.
- Prairie milkweed has smooth stems and leaves that turn up. The yellow flowers are larger and this milkweed grows in zones 3 through 7.
- Sourmate swamp milkweed, Asclepias incarnata has rosy pink blooms. This milkweed is hardy in zones 3 through 8.
- Swamp milkweed Asclepias incarnata grows well in wet areas. This milkweed produces pink flowers that emit a wonderful fragrance in the air. This plant grows four feet tall and is hardy in zones 3 through 8.
Propagation of milkweed can be done by seeds or cuttings. Take a cutting from the tuberous rhizome when the plant goes into dormancy. When you take a piece of the rhizome, make sure it has one bud. There is a small window of time to take the rhizome cutting and plant them. The rhizome needs to be planted in the ground by late fall, but the roots need time to develop before winter. Keep the plants watered the first year of growth. The second year they will be established to survive on their own.
If propagating the milkweed by seeds, simply collect the seeds. Yu can tell when the time is right by waiting for the pods to ripen. Don't wait too long or the pods will open and the seeds will be carried by the wind. Prepare the soil by removing the weeds. Dig up the ground and remove any dirt clods, rocks or sticks that you find in the ground. Firm the soil down. This will keep the seeds from becoming lost in the cracks. Seed that is buried too deep will not germinate. Mix the seeds with some fine sand to make sowing easier. Distribute the seeds and sand mixture over the ground.
Weed and water for the first summer. After that, the milkweed plants should be established and able to grow without the additional water. Unless your area is experiencing a drought. Now you can enjoy watching the pretty Monarch butterflies as they visit your garden of milkweeds.