This wildly beautiful bud is taking hold in backyards across the country. Just don’t let its name fool you!
There’s a quiet new trend springing up in backyard gardens across the U.S. as green thumbs get ready for warmer weather: native milkweeds. In fact, gardening experts are saying it’s the “must have” flower in 2016. So what makes this pretty little weed so special? It has super powers: the native milkweed is the only plant that can save the dwindling population of Monarch Butterflies, because Monarchs use them exclusively to lay eggs.
Unfortunately, however, milkweed’s unattractive name has proved a problem. People don’t like weeds. We pull weeds! And, according to Susan Brandt, president and co-founder of Blooming Secrets, milkweeds have declined drastically in recent years due to “drought, the use of herbicides and overbuilding and logging.” So don’t be deterred from this beautiful pink flower just because of its name—it’s not the type of weed you’d want to pull out, trust us.
“This ‘weed,'” says Brandt, “is extremely useful and beyond that the flowers will add great beauty to a garden. They are great additions if you want to have plants in a natural setting or a wildflower meadow.”
Cindy Crosby, a prairie ecology instructor at the Morton Arboretum and author of seven books, including the forthcoming Introduction to the Tallgrass Prairie (Northwestern University Press), loves milkweed first because of “butterflies!” but also because “these are beautiful, beautiful plants.”
“Even the common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) that you see popping up in old fields and vacant lots has a beautiful ball-like pink bloom, big as your fist, with a heavenly fragrance,” Crosby says. “I grow it in my garden and love it, even when it gets a little weedy-looking.”
Of extra value is the “fun factor.”
“My grandkids love to split open the seed pods and blow the seeds of the common milkweed, putting their silky ‘fluff’ (the pappus) on the wind. Or they like to sail the dried out pods like little canoes on puddles,” Crosby says. “It’s a ritual of childhood. I have it all over my garden, and I let it pop up wherever it takes hold. A little wild looking, yes, but worth it for the fun the grandkids have with it and the joy of seeing monarchs in my backyard.”
If you’re interested in planting milkweed, there are lots of varieties to choose from—including a “tropical” milkweed and the native variety. Though the jury is still out, many butterfly-saving purists say to stick with the native, which are equally as pretty and more attractive to Monarchs. But that certainly won’t limit your options: native Monarch-attracting milkweed varieties include: common milkweed, butterflyweed, swamp milkweed, antelope-horns milkweed, purple milkweed, showy milkweed, California milkweed, white milkweed, whorled and Mexican whorled milkweed, desert milkweed, and green milkweed.
Each of these varieties can grow to different heights (though most will be between one and three feet tall) and requires different care (some are very thirsty, some drought-tolerant). “Different milkweed species like different habitats (i.e., swamp milkweed likes it wet, butterfly milkweed prefers well drained, sandy soil),” Crosby says. So whatever your preference or needs, “there is a milkweed just right for you!”
As you’re deciding on the plants you’ll have, and planning the layout of your garden, Crosby says to keep in mind that the common milkweed flower looks best in a mixed “natural” border rather than a more formal, curated garden. So think carefully about the placement before purchasing.
Then, when it comes to planting, Crosby says, “If I start it from seed, I need to sow it directly into the garden so I don’t have to move it. Most milkweeds have long taproots and don’t care to be relocated! If you buy plants, buy from a nursery that can specify the species. You want native milkweeds, not tropical milkweed. The natives will attract local pollinators and the monarchs.”
She recommends checking out Prairie Moon Nursery, as they have growing tips and seeds available, or talking to your local garden center about native milkweeds and what they have to offer.
“If they don’t carry the milkweeds you want,” Crosby says, “ask them to consider doing so next season. After all, if we let garden centers know we want native plants, we increase chances of more gardeners having access to native milkweeds.”
Brandt agrees that milkweeds are easy to grow from seeds or by purchasing plants. “The most important tip,” she says, “is to plant local species.”
“Most milkweeds are found in dry or well-drained soils in nature and do best under these conditions,” Brandt says. “All milkweeds need full sun. Fertilize them as you would your other flowering perennials. Many species are very cold hardy, and those that aren’t can be grown as potted plants.”
Brandt also cautions that “although milkweeds are fairly pest-free, aphids (those pesky little bright green bugs) can become a problem. Insecticidal soaps, which do not harm beneficial insects that visit flowers, will control the aphids but are also toxic to caterpillars. So it’s best to learn to live with a few aphids until the caterpillars have turned into butterflies.”
After they’re planted, though, all you’ll have to do is sit back, relax on your porch, and enjoy the nearby flap of butterfly wings that make these pink puffs of milkweed so uniquely gorgeous.
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