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Sixth Day of Christmas

On the sixth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me…

…six types of milkweed!


…fiiiive! naaaative! plaaaaants!
…four hummingbirds!
…three moorhens!
…two mourning doves!
…and a replacement for a Bradford pear tree!

Milkweed, as most of us probably know by now, is the only thing that monarch butterfly caterpillars will eat. So if you want to help monarchs in their long, perilous migration (and given how badly their numbers are declining, many of us do) you’ve got to plant milkweed.

In my garden, I have tried six different species of Aesclepias. Most of them have failed miserably. Some of them live long enough to get devoured by milkweed beetles. I keep trying, because if you’re not up for Sisyphean tasks, you’re probably not a gardener.

A. tuberosa — “butterfly weed.” Wretched finicky plant. Monarchs actually prefer other milkweeds and aren’t that fond of it, it likes sandy soil and hates having its roots poked, and me trying to grow it is plant abuse. I think I still have one clawing its way out of a hillside.

A. curassivica — “tropical milkweed.” I grow this one as an annual. It does great! Someday a monarch will find it before the milkweed beetles do.

A. exaltata — “poke milkweed.” This one will take part shade, and is absolutely the perfect milkweed for my area. I planted a seed packet. None of them came up. It’s been two years. No one sells transplants. I am sad.

A. purpurascens — “purple milkweed.” I was somewhat daunted by the bit where it died instantly.

A. incarnata — “swamp milkweed.” This plant is my great failure, even more so than the others. Most people will agree that many milkweeds are finicky. Swamp milkweed, however, grows madly. It spreads. People complain about its enthusiasm. I have planted three different plants in three different spots. One still produces one dogged stem, once a year. The others have vanished to wherever sad milkweeds go. To hear people talk, the only way I am accomplishing this is by sowing the fields with salt and watering it with bleach.

A. verticillata — “whorled milkweed.” My one great success! It grows! It flowers! It takes miserable clay! It’s not fast, but boy, it’s hardy! I want to hug this one when it comes back each year. Someday, we may even get a monarch caterpillar!

Until that day, I console myself with the fact that we get many caterpillars every year of other varieties, and that monarchs frequents stop to refuel on nectar, if not to raise a family. Still, I hold out hope.

Originally published at Squash's Garden. You can comment here or there.


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Oh god, the picture made me laugh so hard! I need that on a tee shirt.

I have planted swamp milkweed with the hopes that will grow and help provide screening for some plants that are getting more sun than they like. If it spreads and takes over the back yard, all that much better.

(even better would be some obnoxious native vine that will grow all over my neighbor's fence and block out their yappy little dogs' view of my yard, so if anyone has any suggestions, they'd be welcome.)

I have EXACTLY the same need for a vine, except I need one that's native to the Pacific Northwest. Everything else -- neighbors, fence, yappy little dogs -- is the same.

*ducks head* um... we get a lot of monarchs on that purple flowering tree bushy thing in our backyard. sometimes it's a bit orange and black from them sucking down their lunch.

but then i'm pretty sure it's a pity suck on their part because they know i have a black thumb.


Oo! oo! I should send you a picture of our place (in VT) covered in milkweed during the summer (A. purpurascens, I think). It's enough for milkweed beetles and to spare -- we almost always see monarch caterpillars at some point.

What blows my mind about monarchs is that their "migration" is actually a multi-generational affair -- they reproduce and die in several cycles every year before re-congregating in their hibernation areas. It's like embarking on a colony ship to a distant star that only your great-grandchildren will see.

Oops, I sit corrected. What we have is just common milkweed, A. syriaca, but we do have scads of it, and my wife is very fond of helping it spread (not that it needs any help, around here).

Edited at 2012-12-20 12:47 am (UTC)

When I was a child in upstate NY, we'd have fields of the stuff. Used to have milkweed wars throwing the pods at each other and counting coup with the white marks left by the sap. Lots of fun for us, not so much for our parents who had to wash the clothes later.

So, swamp milkweed won't take in "The Mire"?</p>

What's up with that?

I planted milkweed when we bought the house 3 yrs ago. Do not remember what kind but it is slow growing and finally this year I saw some butterflies hanging around it!

wait, really? My butterfly weed grows like mad, and my swamp milkweed kind of hangs in there, mostly. (Admittedly, it probably doesn't help that it's a little too close to the nice bushy aster, but still...)

I passed up a red milkweed (A. rubra, I think?) at a plant sale this fall, as the seller said it probably wouldn't overwinter north of about Richmond without help. (I'm in Baltimore.) Sadly, the internet seems to disagree, so perhaps I should have tried-- anyway, obligate wetland but doesn't seem too fixated on sand, so it might be worth trying for your next round?

Oh! And I haven't tried it myself, but another local gardener here reports good results from sticking milkweed seeds in the fridge for six weeks and then starting them when she does her food-garden starts.

Foolproof: Asclepias syriaca

This is the common milkweed and is not particularly ornamental (flowers are dead-flesh pink, but they smell good and the seed pods are cool). I weed it out ruthlessly but I never get rid of it. Yes, it's aggressive.

I can send you seeds next fall if you wish.

I have not succeeded with other milkweeds, but have not given up on A.incarnata which grows wild in the unkept drainage ditches up the road. It dies in my drainage ditch. go figure.

A comment I made after taking a long road-trip a few years back:

I must say, though, that the Illinois DOT's decision to plant hundreds of miles of butterfly weed along the interstate median strip was ill-advised. I like butterflies -- in fact, I like them far too much to be happy about the number that were going SPLAT! on my windshield.

I don't recall seeing any monarchs, but the median strip was just thick with all sorts of other kinds. It was a pretty sight, when they weren't fluttering out into my lane.

Have you considered taking part in Monarch Watch? You can tag monarchs in the fall (it's actually ridiculously easy, we let little kids do it!) and then they try to find the tags at their overwintering sites in Mexico. It's pretty stinkin' cool - if they find one of your tags, you get a little certificate with how far your monarch flew from where it was tagged. The project has helped researchers figure out the exact routes the final generation is taking to get down to Mexico, go citizen science!

The tagging kit, for those who might be interested. :D We do a whole program in September catching and tagging - the sight of 50 kids charging into a field armed with butterfly nets is priceless.

I've got two A. amplexicaulis (curly milkweeds) that came up as volunteers, and they're native to my area as well, which is nice. They've never survived till the monarch migration, though they do well enough through the summer. Nothing else I've tried has sprouted/survived. There are small orange milkweeds in my area as well, though not at my house, but I don't know if they're still around at migration time.

I know they're not host plants, but monarchs flock to my two butterfly bushes (I know, I know, I was young and naive, but thankfully they're sterile, or at least have never spread at all in the past ten years) and my zinnias. I like to think that at least I'm giving them food.

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