How to Care for Milkweed Plants in Winter

I absolutely love milkweed. When the towering stalks pop up each summer, I get to watch my garden turn into a monarch butterfly paradise!

Milkweed is a central feature in my garden, and I want to make sure it has everything it needs to come back in the spring.

Luckily, there isn’t all that much that you need to do – though there are a few tips and tricks that you should follow to ensure the perennial growth of healthy plants with an abundance of blooms.

A vertical close up image of a milkweed plant that has died back and gone to seed pictured in a winter garden with snow on the ground on a soft focus background. To the center and bottom of the frame is green and white printed text.

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If you’re just getting started, you can find complete cultivation instructions in our growing guide.

Read on to learn how to care for Asclepias plants during the winter, so they can return robust as ever the following spring.

Winter Care

Milkweed is an herbaceous perennial, and the Asclepias genus includes more than 100 species native to the US and Canada.

A close up horizontal image of milkweed growing in the garden with bright green foliage and small flowers.

These can be identified by their characteristic milky white sap, which can be found within the stems and leaves.

Plants in this genus flower during the summer, set seed in the fall, and die back in winter.

With proper care, they’ll be ready to sprout again the following spring from an underground network of creeping roots. Milkweed also spreads easily from seed.

There are species that have adapted to grow in almost all climates. If you are growing a variety that is native to your climate, winter care requirements will be minimal.

If you live in a cold climate or you are growing a species that isn’t quite hardy to your zone, you can add a few inches of wood chips or straw mulch to help protect the root system over the winter.

You can find our list of recommended milkweed varieties here.

Prune in Fall or Early Spring

You can cut plants back in the fall or wait until the spring.

A close up horizontal image of a snow-covered Asclepias seedpod with small fluffy seeds hanging out pictured on a soft focus background.

If you hold off until early spring, this allows birds and other small animals to use the fluff surrounding the seeds and the fibers from the stalks to build nests.

To prune, just use a pair of clean pruners to cut each dead stem to the ground. These can be added to the compost pile.

A close up horizontal image of a Asclepias seedpod covered in snow, pictured on a soft focus background.

Whenever you choose to prune, just make sure to wait until the seed pods have matured and dispersed their seeds first.

Save and Spread Seeds

Milkweed plants are the main food source and habitat for monarch caterpillars, an important and threatened native pollinator – so the more we can spread it around, the better!

A close up horizontal image of empty Asclepias seedpod husks hanging from the stem in the winter garden, pictured on a soft focus background.

Seeds from some species require cold stratification, so if you let the seeds disperse they will sit dormant in the garden until spring. Warm weather and tropical species including A. curassavica do not require cold stratification.

You can also collect them and spread them out yourself wherever you want them. Do this in late fall, after the first frost but before a hard freeze.

Butterflies Galore

Caring for milkweed in winter is a piece of cake, and the rewards are so satisfying! With barely any effort required over the winter, you can watch your garden fill up with a huge patch year after year.

A close up horizontal image of a Asclepias plant that has finished flowering and gone to seed, covered in frost in the winter garden, pictured on a soft focus background.

First will come the caterpillars, then enchanting glasslike cocoons will hang down from the branches, and finally the garden will be filled with butterflies!

What are your tips for overwintering milkweed? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

And for more tips on preparing your flowers for winter, check out these guides next:

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Photo of author
Heather Buckner hails from amongst the glistening lakes of Minnesota, and now lives with her family on a beautiful homestead in the Vermont Mountains. She holds a bachelor of science degree in environmental science from Tufts University, and has traveled and worked in many roles in conservation and environmental advocacy, including creating and managing programs based around resource conservation, organic gardening, food security, and building leadership skills. Heather is a certified permaculture designer and student herbalist. She is also a fanatical gardener, and enjoys spending as much time covered in dirt as possible!

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Ann L Cobb
Ann L Cobb (@guest_10639)
3 years ago

Heather, I am going to mass plant a plot of land on our farm with common milkweed along with bulk pollinator seed.I am starting with a grassy [lot of land. Though it has been bush hogged, there is a thick growth of grass and weeds. I plan to cover the space with tarps for two weeks.

If I am able to “lasagna garden” over cardboard or thick newspapers, I plan to create a 2′-3′ layer of composted materials and soil. Do you have any advice for me?
Zone 7, NC


John Rollman
John Rollman (@guest_10669)
3 years ago

I’ve planted a small patch of milkweed in my garden near other plants, specifically an Althea/Rose of Sharon and Crape Myrtle. I anticipated pollinating butterflies but didn’t think about the cocoon/caterpillar stage. I’m concerned about them damaging the other plants. Will they just prefer the milkweed or do you have any suggestions on containing them?

William Oliva
William Oliva (@guest_12808)
2 years ago

Where can I find free milkweed seeds? I am in Illinois and I want the milkweed that is the foundation for egg laying for monarchs. I believe they are the fluffy milky seeds that pop out every fall.

June Ramirez
June Ramirez (@guest_14975)
Reply to  William Oliva
2 years ago

Does it get to 32 degrees or lower where you live? I am asking because I planted tropical milkweed here in the low desert of AZ. Not a good thing here because it doesn’t go dormant here and can lead to a parasite that can grow over the winter on the plant here and can harm monarchs. I have many plants I will cut to the ground in Dec. to prevent the parasitic growth. I have collected seeds from this plant that I willing to share with people in States that actually get a real winter.

Eric (@guest_22740)
Reply to  William Oliva
1 year ago

Look up live monarch foundation seed is sold via donation

Amanda (@guest_15302)
2 years ago

Is it normal for milkweeds to turn brown in winter? Or am I not watering the right amount?

Nora (@guest_18538)
1 year ago

So I am just getting started and locating your info on which seeds are best for Oregon. What worries me is the birds. Won’t they come after the larvae or butterflies? We have some very determined birds and tons of dreaded starlings. Any suggestions would be appreciated. Thanks, Nora

Allison Sidhu
Allison Sidhu(@allison-sidhu)
Reply to  Nora
1 year ago

Great question, Nora. Monarchs have their own built-in defenses against predation, thanks in part to their choice of host plant. Chowing down on milkweed actually provides protection for the larvae! And those brightly colored stripes and wings also serve as a warning to local vertebrates that says “do not eat me.” Birds will often turn to milkweed for nesting material, if the seeds and stalks are left in place over the winter. But milkweed contains toxic cardiac glycosides that will often cause birds and other animals to vomit and avoid that unpleasant food source in the future without causing any… Read more »

Nora (@guest_18553)
Reply to  Allison Sidhu
1 year ago

Thanks Allison, I am hoping with butterfly bushes, rhodys, azaleas, fox glove, passion flower, wisteria, honeysuckle, hollyhock and assorted berries should give them, bees and humming birds a bit to hold them over. But, with the starlings, there is not much that deters them…sure wish they had stayed in England. Could you tell me which of the milkweed produce the most toxin that I could use in Oregon? Thank you, Nora

Allison Sidhu
Allison Sidhu(@allison-sidhu)
Reply to  Nora
1 year ago

Sounds like a wonderful assortment! Where are you located in Oregon specifically? USDA Hardiness Zones there range from 4b to 9b. Heartleaf (Asclepias cordifolia) and showy (A. speciosa) milkweeds are native there, and the latter may be your best option as it produces narrow leaves and grows across a broader range into areas with colder winters. See our guide to varieties of milkweed for more detail on both of these species. It’s tough to say specifically which might be the most productive. According to a report from the Agricultural Research Service at the USDA, “Labriform milkweed (A. labriformis) is the… Read more »