How to Plant a Monarch Magnet

We all know the monarch butterflies are in trouble. So I was delighted when the first one arrived in my garden a couple of weeks ago. It was faded and bedraggled, much like a traveler in Logan arriving on the red-eye from Los Angeles. But I imagine it was delighted to find it favorite food waiting for it in my garden.

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For the past three years I have been growing various kinds of milkweed with the idea of supporting monarchs. They protect themselves, in part, by feeding on milkweeds which contain toxins that make them not palatable to birds. There are at least 25 species of native milkweeds.

Common milkweed is found in fields and along roads.

Last year I planted seeds from the common milkweed, Asclepias syriaca. They germinated, I planted them, but they fizzled out. Probably just as well, as they spread by root and can be pests once established.

Common milkweed seedlings I started last year. This spring they did not return.

Some years ago I grew butterfly weed, Asclepias tuberosa, which is readily available as an orange-colored perennial. But after a cold winter, I lost it.

Best of all, I planted swamp milkweed, Asclepias incarnata. Three years ago I got one plant, which is now a nice clump blooming with pink flowers. It stands over 5 feet tall and the clump is about 3 feet across.

Swamp milkweed is a big (but mannerly) plant.

I let the seeds drop in the fall, but no new seedlings grew – or none that I saw this spring. It is very late in appearing, by the way, and I thought for a while that I’d lost this one, too. Swamp milkweed will grow in ordinary garden soil, you don’t have to have a swamp.

This year I went to EC Brown’s Nursery in Thetford, VT and got 5 big pots of swamp milkweed and 3 smaller pots of a named cultivar, ‘Cinderella’. The five were all white in blossom, but Cinderella is pink, I’m told. I also got a whorled milkweed,  Aesclepias verticilatta. The foliage on that one is very fine, but I have yet to see it blossom.

Monarch on white swamp milkweed.

Over the past week I’ve seen monarch’s almost every day. Today 2 or 3, I think, were floating around and acting very camera-shy. The landed on both pink and white ones.

Monarch today on swamp milkweed. Astillbe in the background, hollyhock in foreground.

So if you want the magic of monarchs in your garden, get some swamp milkweed. It makes my heart swell every time I see a monarch and try to imagine where it has been. 

What about pesticides? Do you need them? Are they safe? Read (or listen to) my thoughts on pesticides that played on VPR this week by clicking here. 

And do you recognize the evil poison parsnip? Click here to learn how to avoid the terrible  burns some have suffered by clicking here

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