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Native Plants: Milkweeds for Monarchs in the Chesapeake

Plant a patch to pump up monarch populations!

Doug Tallamy, with the University of Delaware's Department of Entomology and Wildlife Ecology, recently put out a call asking us all to plant milkweeds. He says here, along the east coast, monarch butterflies have declined between 75 and 95% depending on which population you look at. On the west coast, the monarch population has declined by 99%.

Dr. Tallamy recommends we take four steps to help: stop mosquito fogging, plant milkweed patches, reduce mowing along sleepy roadsides and, if you are a farmer, plant milkweed and pollinator flower strips.

Ready to add your milkweed patch? Milkweeds are native perennials that thrive in sun and average soils. These milkweeds are commonly available at native plant nurseries and some garden centers.

Butterfly Weed

Butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa) is drought tolerant and can grow in most soils. This typically grows about two feet tall and wide. It is one of the most commonly available native plants!

Common Milkweed

Common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) is a taller growing fragrant milkweed that grows in full sun. It can easily grow over 5 feet tall. It spreads by rhizomes and can spread aggressively -- perfect for the monarchs if you have the space.

Swamp Milkweed

Swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) is fragrant and a pleasing pink that harmonizes with most other colors. It will grow in full sun or partial shade to about three feet tall. Mt. Cuba describes swamp milkweed as the easiest milkweed to grow. It will grow in moist soils but can also grow just fine in average soils. Swamp milkweed are available by mail from Direct Natives or Plant More Natives.

Whorled Milkweed

Whorled milkweed (Asclepias verticillata) is the shortest of the bunch and tops out under two feet. It also differs in that it has very narrow leaves. It grows best in rocky soils and needs good drainage so if you have heavy clay this is probably not the best choice for you. To find this one, a native plant nursery is your best bet.

Planting Your Patch

Are you thinking great idea but where? What about tucking some milkweed in between other sun loving perennials,? Or how about planting in the area between the sidewalk and the road? Perhaps along the side of a garage, shed or back fence with sun? Even a container of milkweed will help!

Your favorite native plant nursery will very likely have milkweeds. Herring Run Nursery in Baltimore and Lauren's Garden Service in Ellicott City currently have several types available. Need to order by mail? Butterfly weed is available from Plant More Natives. Swamp milkweed is available by mail from Direct Natives or Plant More Natives.

The goal of planting a patch is to provide food for monarch caterpillars. Monarch caterpillars can only eat milkweed plants. The caterpillars start out quite small and quickly grow. Check out these photos from the Maine Extension Service.

Listening to a podcast earlier this week between gardeners, I learned what you should do if monarch caterpillars are eating your milkweed so quickly you think they will run out of food before their chrysalis forms. Apparently, if you put out the word on social media, other gardeners who don't have monarchs on their milkweeds will share their plants with you so your monarch caterpillars can survive. Who knew?!

Happy gardening and I hope many of us are able to plant a patch this weekend!


We want you to be as excited about planting Chesapeake natives as we are. “Plant This or That” gives you a native alternative to popular plants. Other posts highlight really fabulous fauna native to the Chesapeake.

Nuts for Natives, avid gardener, Baltimore City admirer, Chesapeake Bay Watershed restoration enthusiast, and public service fan.

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