How to Plant and Grow Milkweed

Asclepias spp.

Meadows are one of my favorite places to be, largely because of the lovely milkweed that I often find there.

Tall and topped with sprays of flowers, an arrow-straight stem with funky looking oval leaves, and crawling with caterpillars, beetles, and butterflies? Yeah, that’s the plant for me.

You’re probably familiar with the common milkweed seen in meadows and roadsides across the country, but the milkweed family is actually huge. We’re going to take a look at some different cultivars used in gardens and learn how to grow this plant.

An orange and black Monarch butterfly is perched on a cluster of pink milkweed flowers, with green leaves, printed with green and white text.

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More important than that, though, we’re going to talk about the importance of milkweed in the environment. Here’s what’s ahead in this article:

Buckle in, we’re going to get started.

Start with the Basics

Milkweed is botanically known as Asclepias spp. and has over one hundred known species. It was named by Carl Linnaeus after the Greek god of healing, Asclepius, and the species is native to the Americas.

Closeup of a cluster of purple and white Asclepias flowers, with green leaves, in bright sunshine.

This nod to a god of healing is because of the use of the sap as a medicinal aid, namely for dysentery and warts, by the native people in the Americas.

While the milky white latex inside the stems is often toxic, the rest of the fibers in the plant have earned Asclepias the nickname “Silk of America.”

These fibers have been used for insulation and cleaning oil spills and can be found in some hypoallergenic pillows.

Orange asclepias blooming in a garden bed, with blue flowers in the background.

But most of us know the value of milkweed because of its necessity in the life cycle of the monarch butterfly.

The Milkweed and the Butterfly

As a kid, I remember learning that milkweed sap is toxic. But monarch caterpillars can eat Asclepias safely and then become toxic to predators later on in their life cycle.

Our teacher went into the meadow outside of the school, found a monarch caterpillar on a piece of milkweed, and brought it in to show us.

Yellow, black, and white striped Monarch butterfly caterpillar, in the palm of a person's dirt-covered hand.
Photo by Matt Suwak.

Hoards of children watched the chrysalis formation and waited impatiently for the butterfly to molt. It did, eventually… over the weekend, when nobody was around!

Our teacher said she released it into the wild to prevent it from being cooped up for too long.

Closeup of a light green Monarch butterfly chrysalis, with a yellow and black stripe at the top, in the palm of a person's dirt-covered hand.
Photo by Matt Suwak.

I don’t know if the thing simply died and she didn’t want to break our tiny seven-year-old hearts, but I do know that the lessons she taught about the natural dynamic of milkweed and butterfly stuck with me for the rest of my life.

How Integral Is this Relationship?

In a word: it’s absolutely integral!

Monarch caterpillars utterly depend on Asclepias for their diet, but so too do a number of insects all specialized in dining on the otherwise-toxic milky sap of the plant.

A green stalk of milkweed with narrow green leaves and a monarch butterfly caterpillar feeding on the plant, with a meadow, trees, and blue sky in the background.

A monarch butterfly will lay its eggs on the underside of a leaf. In fact, this is the only place where a monarch will lay its eggs.

When the eggs hatch, the tiny caterpillars start going to town, and chomp down on the Asclepias.

Bright red Asclepias flowers with yellow centers, on a plant with green stems and long, narrow, green leaves.

Amazingly, the plants have built-in defenses like irritating hairs and their aforementioned natural toxins to slow the buffet line down, but they do not altogether prevent the insects from using the plant as a food source.

A bee pollinates white and rose-colored milkweed flowers growing in a cluster on a plant with green buds and leaves.

Most monarchs live for an average of four weeks, but every fourth generation lives for six to eight months!

This is the generation that will complete an incredible flight to the southern regions of North America, to roost and overwinter before continuing the journey northward to start the cycle anew.

This plant is also a primary food source and shelter for a variety of beetles and has earned its place as a vital native plant species for healthy ecosystems nationwide.

The Butterfly Garden

The popularity of butterfly gardens was spurred in a big way because of the plight of the monarch, and this style of garden has attracted plenty of folks to the realm of gardening. That makes me love butterfly gardens!

Asclepias and other native flowers like black-eyed Susans, echinacea, joe-pye weed, sweet alyssum, and sunflowers are some of the easy-to-grow plants that may make up a successful butterfly garden.

An orange and black Monarch butterfly on a milkweed plant, with green leaves and fuzzy light green seed pods, with yellow black eyed-susans in the background.

All butterflies are pollinators and are attracted to this style of flower. Plant the right types, and you’ll have a never-ending summer show of cascading butterflies!

The biggest benefit of a healthy butterfly garden is that it strengthens the rest of your local ecosystem.

When butterflies are present, that means birds, bats, and other critters that feed on butterflies are able to make a resurgence as well.

Upward-facing shot of orange milkweed flowers with green leaves and long stems, growing in front of a metal fence, with a brown wood fence and a tan stucco building in the background.
Photo by Matt Suwak.

Think of a butterfly garden, and milkweed’s place in it, as an essential strand in the food web!

Ideal Planting Conditions and Potential Problems

Despite sharing a name, many milkweed types require different growing conditions. Some prefer hot and dry areas while others thrive only in moist conditions, but they all need ample sunlight to do their best.

The common milkweed does well in what might be considered average conditions: moderately dry and well-draining soil, no special fertilizers or nutrition requirements, and about eight hours of sun a day.

Bright orange asclepias flowers growing on tall stems with narrow green leaves in a field, with blue sky and fluffy clouds in the background.

Most of the species I’ve worked with prefer that “average” blend of characteristics. These plants can be plopped into the garden and be given a springtime coating of compost, then be on their way to growing lovely and stunning flowers.

Most don’t require any extra watering except during the hottest dry spells.

Pink and white Asclepias with narrow green leaves, on a brown background with selective focus.

Because of their toxicity, Asclepias also attracts few ailments or problems.

Besides typical fungal issues that can be found in many areas of the garden with an abundance of moisture, milkweed can suffer from general heat stress and damage. Remove yellowed leaves and those with lots of damage from insects.

Red and yellow Asclepias flowers with narrow green leaves.

Mites can become a problem, but any general insecticidal treatment works; just be careful not to poison those desirable insects, as well!

Milkweed yellows phytoplasma is a more serious issue identified by malformed, yellowish growth and branch dieback.

The only solution here is to remove and destroy the infected plants before they spread the ailment to other plants.

To avoid these conditions, keep your plants thinned out and avoid standing pools of water and over-watering in general. Milkweed would rather be too dry than too wet!

How to Start Growing Your Own Milkweed

Many garden centers will sell a variety of milkweed species during the growing season, but finding live plants online can be difficult.

That’s because, for all of their toughness to natural predators and tolerance of growing conditions, Asclepias can be very sensitive to transplanting and handling.

For that reason, I recommend starting yours from seed. Fortunately for those who really like to do it all yourself, milkweed plants produce extraordinarily generous bounties of seeds for you to harvest.

Milkweed seeds on a dry pod that has broken open in the fall, with dry, dead stalks of the plant surrounding it, and green trees in the distance.

Each individual seed pod can contain a hundred or more seeds, and plants have multiple seed pods each!

I usually collect my seeds from the gardens of friends and clients, but I’ve snagged a single pod or two when out hiking as well.

Asclepias seeds need a period of cold to become viable, with some added moisture. This process is called “cold stratification,” and you’ve got two easy options for how to accomplish this task:

1. Chill Manually

Place your seeds on a damp paper towel and plop them into a ziplock bag.

Label the bag with the date, and keep it somewhere in your refrigerator where it won’t be bothered; you need to leave the seeds largely undisturbed for about thirty days before they become viable.

After stratifying, you can start your seeds in a growing medium about three to four weeks before the last freeze date.

2. Direct Sow in Cool Climates

Directly sow your seeds in the garden in the late fall and let the winter weather take care of cold stratification for you!

A hand holds a milkweed pod, with feathery white seeds.

If you’re cold stratifying the seeds yourself…

  • Start the seeds, preferably in peat pods.
  • After wetting and preparing the growing medium, add one to three seeds per pod. If you use more than one seed you’ll have better luck that at least one will grow, but you’ll need to thin out the weaker seedlings.
  • Layer about a quarter of an inch of soil onto the seeds and keep them in a warm area with lots of light.
  • Be very careful when moving and planting your Asclepias seedlings; they are very fragile and need delicate care.
  • Plant the pods directly into the garden before the plants reach about three inches in height to avoid damaging the sensitive taproot and wait until after the last freeze date before planting.
  • Ensure the top of the peat pods is covered in soil, or carefully cut any extra pieces away to prevent the peat from stealing moisture from the seedling.

All of these steps can be skipped if you’re sowing the seeds outdoors, but I would recommend planting lots of extra seeds if you take this route.

You can thin them out later as the season goes on, and this helps to avoid the frustrating experience of having none of the seeds germinate because you sowed too sparsely.

If you want to plant the common milkweed (A. syriaca), you can find seeds available from Earthbeat Seeds in packets of 30.

A close up of a butterfly feeding from common milkweed flowers pictured on a soft focus background.

A. syriaca

Common milkweed grows in Zones 4 to 9 and reaches a height of about three feet. It’s the plant we’re most familiar with seeing growing in the wild.

For the swamp milkweed (A. incarnata), you can find seeds in packets of 30 also available from Earthbeat Seeds.

A close up of a butterfly feeding from a swamp milkweed flower growing in the garden.

A. incarnata

The swamp variety of Asclepias will grow in Zones 3 to 9 and can reach a height of five feet tall!

The whorled milkweed (A. verticillata) is a lovely plant for those who want something a bit more shy – reaching about two feet tall max – that grows in Zones 4 to 9.

Red and yellow Asclepias curassavica with an orange and black Monarch butterfly, on a plant with narrow green leaves, on a mottled green and brown background in soft focus.

Heirloom Bloodflower Seeds, available from Eden Brothers

Want to add a splash of dazzling color to your flower beds? The bloodflower, or sunset flower (A. curassavica) is another stunning variety, with red and yellow flowers and a max height of about 36 inches.

This variety is recommended for Zones 3 to 9.

A cluster of orange Asclepias tuberosa flowers, with an orange and brown butterfly perched on top, with green foliage in shallow focus in the background.

A. Tuberosa Seeds, available from Eden Brothers

The aptly named butterfly weed (A. tuberosa) is another colorful variety, with vibrant orange flowers. It will grow to a height of 24 to 36 inches in Zones 3 to 9.

Most of these companies recommend cold stratifying the seeds before spring planting to further guarantee germination, so order early! Otherwise, they’re ready to go if you sow outdoor in the fall.

White blooming Asclepias 'Ice Ballet' with green narrow leaves.

A. Incarnata ‘Ice Ballet’ Plant in #2 Container, available from Nature Hills

If you REALLY want a live plant, I recommend ‘Ice Ballet,’ available from Nature Hills Nursery in #2 containers It grows to about two to three feet in height and has a lovely shade of white to its flowers.

I’ve seen it in a few select gardens, and I wish I saw it in more because this plant is a real beauty.

Get Planting and Attract Those Butterflies!

While they are sensitive and require special handling when young, Asclepias become hardy and easy to care for within a few weeks.

Better yet, they attract a veritable swarm of wildlife, and that’s always a good thing for the eco-conscious gardener!

Pink Asclepias flowers with green foliage.
Photo by Matt Suwak.

Asclepias are at their best when they’re given room to grow and do what they want to do, but with the right attention, they can shine in even the most well-manicured garden.

The beetles, the butterflies, and the pollinators will all thank you for giving this iconic American perennial a shot in your garden!

Do you have some extra tips on growing milkweed to share, or maybe a few questions? Please drop us a line in the comments below. Thanks for reading, and check back soon!

And for more pollinator-friendly plantings to add to your landscape, check out these guides next:

Photo of author


Matt Suwak was reared by the bear and the bobcat and the coyote of rural Pennsylvania. This upbringing keeps him permanently affixed to the outdoors where most of his personal time is invested in gardening, bird watching, and hiking. He presently resides in Philadelphia and works under the sun as a landscaper and gardener, and by moonlight as a writer. An incessant questioning of “Why?” affords him countless opportunities to ponder the (in)significance of the great and the small. He considers folksy adages priceless treasures and is fueled almost entirely by beer and hot sauce.
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David (@guest_4579)
5 years ago

Thank you for the enjoyable article. On the subject of captive-raised monarch butterflies, a recent study says that those butterflies generally cannot migrate.

Allison Sidhu
Allison Sidhu(@allison-sidhu)
Reply to  David
4 years ago

Interesting article, David. Thanks for sharing!

Max Smith
Max Smith (@guest_4643)
4 years ago

Matt, they’re out of control! That peak is 12′. The eave is 8′. Then the rain knocks them down, breaking some of the stems. How do I keep them pruned—that is, how hard and how late can I prune them w/o losing the flower heads?

Julie Kehler
Julie Kehler (@guest_11042)
Reply to  Max Smith
3 years ago

From my experience with Eupatorium purpureum (Joe Pye weed) they grow up to 8′ and flower in late fall here in zone 8 so perfect for providing a late-season source of food when the rest of the garden isn’t flowering much. Definitely need staking, but definitely worth keeping if you can!

Bonnie (@guest_4686)
4 years ago

Hi, I have healthy milkweed plants that overwintered and came up in the spring. They are about 3’ tall but have no signs of flower buds at all and although we have millions of various butterflies all over our yard and multiple flowers, butterflies do not get on the milkweed plants. I think they were swamp milkweed. When do they usually bloom? Thanks

SARAH Lynn MCCANN (@guest_4783)
4 years ago

I live on Long Island in NY. I planted two milkweed plants fairly close to each other and near other butterfly-loving plants. (as a trial I only did two but I intend to plant a whole area of my garden with them). They’re growing great and are about 2ft tall BUT the stems are basically leaning so much they’re growing into other plants. Are the main stems not strong enough to stand upright? Did I not plant enough together to provide natural support? Anything I’m missing here? The leaves look healthy and they feel sturdy when I pick the stems… Read more »

Eleanor Dutt
Eleanor Dutt (@guest_4816)
4 years ago

Hi I just started with feeding Caterpillars…found some cats on my common milkweed plant and butterfly milkweed..well for the first time I have a cat that went to the top of my screen enclosure and this morning I found it in the J position..I have 4 more that are getting ready to leave the husband and I are starting a butterfly garden for next Spring, so your info on Milkweed plants was very useful and informative..thank you

Peggy (@guest_4826)
4 years ago

Once the caterpillar strip the leaves and leave a bare stem, should it be pruned back? I have a very large bunch of hungry caterpillars.

Jenn (@guest_4964)
4 years ago

Great article! I planted a swamp milkweed last spring and it grew beautifully this summer. I was honestly surprised by how many monarch caterpillars hatched and grew on the bush. Questions…should I cut back the stems of the plant over winter or wait and cut back in the spring and how far back should I cut them?

Nancy Hogan
Nancy Hogan (@guest_5274)
4 years ago

Is milkweed poisonous to dogs and cats?

Allison Sidhu
Allison Sidhu(@allison-sidhu)
Reply to  Nancy Hogan
4 years ago

Yes, milkweed sap and other plant parts can be toxic to pets.

Carmen (@guest_5392)
4 years ago

David, REALLY great and enjoyable write up!! I have some CA beers in my fridge so stop by when you come to the West Coast and we will enjoy a couple!

Becky (@guest_6175)
4 years ago

Hi: Which milkweed are invasive? Live between Pittsburgh and Erie in Zone 5.