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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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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