How Milkweeds Can Save Monarch Butterflies And Beautify Your Garden

Close-up of an orange and black butterfly perched on a group of small, unopened flowers

A monarch butterfly on common milkweed. Photo: Candy Sarikonda.

Did you know milkweeds aren’t really weeds at all? In fact, they’re native plants with large pink, orange, or white flowers. In addition to their charm, plants in the genus Asclepias are the host plants for the monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus), meaning they are the only food for the monarch larvae, or caterpillars. Without milkweeds, the monarch butterfly has no chance for survival.

The female monarch butterfly carefully selects a milkweed plant and deposits one egg to the bottom of the leaf; she repeats this multiple times on dozens or even hundreds of plants. The larvae hatch on the leaves and eat the egg capsules, which contain precious nutrients, and start munching on the milkweed leaf tissue. The sap found in the plants of the genus Asclepias makes the caterpillars and later, the butterflies, toxic or unpalatable to many birds. Some butterflies, like the viceroy, even mimic the monarch to benefit from that toxicity.

Luckily, local milkweed plants are perennial (meaning they grow back over many years without the need to plant new plants every year) and easy to grow. They make beautiful additions to your new or existing garden or can easily add color to your balcony. Here are some to consider as you plan your garden:

Butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa)

Full sun, moist to dry soil conditions.

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Bright orange flowers

This plant has radiant orange flowers and attracts different pollinators, growing in a clumped fashion. The butterfly weed has long and slender leaves and blooms for a long period of time in the early summer. This plant rarely exceeds three feet in height. It's beautiful in a composition of flowers where the vibrant orange can easily “pop” or brighten an area.

Swamp or pink milkweed (Asclepias incarnata)

Full sun, wet to moist soil conditions.

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Small, clustered light pink flowers on top of green stalks

This elegant plant can grow up to five feet tall, with fragrant pink flowers in large clusters. This is one of the easier milkweeds to grow in your garden and one that will not spread too quickly. It's good for growing around a fence on the sunny south or west facing side, or near a place where gutters discharge their water, as it does well in wet conditions. 

Common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca)

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Tall plant stalk with large leaves all the way up the stem and a cluster of small pink flowers at the top

Full sun to part shade, any soil condition, does well in compacted urban soils.

The most common of the milkweed species, this plant has large, drooping pink flower clusters that attract a variety of pollinators. Common milkweed grows quickly and spreads fast, so it’s a great addition to any empty spaces in your yard that you’d like to brighten up. It can also fill an area that is hard to reach, like between a garage and a fence.

Prairie milkweed (Asclepias sullivantii)

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Close-up of a bunch of tiny bright pink flowers in a field of green

Full sun, moist soil conditions.

This plant does not spread quickly. It grows to about two feet tall and often has singular stems. The flowers are not as robust as the common milkweed but can be showy. Plant along a footpath or somewhere else where shorter plants are desired. 

Whorled milkweed (Asclepias verticillata)

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Pale yellow to white flowers on top of a stalk with very thin, long leaves
Photo: John Hilty

Full sun, moist to dry conditions, also does well in urban soil.

The whorled milkweed is a delicate plant with white flowers that grows in a single stalk that is shorter than two feet. It’s a great plant to arrange between other plants in a garden or on a rocky soil inhospitable to other species.

Learn more about the monarch life cycle, milkweeds, and other nectar sources needed by the monarch butterfly, in our rapid color guide on monarch butterflies

Get started by finding a Chicagoland native plant sale near you.