The many colors of milkweed

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By Kristopher Fante

Agriculture Columnist

Summer is in full swing, and that’s the greatest time of the year for our many Kentucky native plants to strut their stuff and show how magnificent native flowers can be.

But the one that is at forefront of many magazines, newspapers, TV shows, and all over the internet is the milkweed plant.The reason for this as many of us know by now is the declining population of monarch butterflies. The population has decreased by 90 percent in the last 20 years or so, with the main culprit being the lack of natural spaces such as open fields and meadows. The use of chemicals to kill fencerows where native plants once thrived around crops, and with ever-so-popular residential lawns, we’ve not given this beautiful butterfly much of a chance. If you are not privy to the remarkable migration that the monarch completes from Mexico through the U.S. and on to Canada, do yourself a favor and read up on it. It truly is an amazing feat.

Why is milkweed so important to the monarch butterflies? The milkweed plant is the only host plant for the monarch. They not only use milkweed for nectar, but this is the only plant they will eat and lay eggs on. Without milkweed, the cycle of butterflies laying eggs, caterpillars hatching and feeding on milkweed, changing over to pupa, and lastly emerging as a new butterfly can’t continue and they will become extinct.

With all the information being laid out to us from all over, it seems that most of us recognize milkweed as being the same as butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa). Yes, butterfly weed is a milkweed, but it’s just one of the many milkweed species, and there are over 100 native milkweeds in the United States. Butterfly weed is probably the one most of us see on the roadsides because of the gorgeous bright orange flowers that grab our immediate attention, but there are about 12 milkweeds that are native to Kentucky. There are many colors of milkweed that we can plant in our backyards to help the monarch and pollinators as well, plus the added benefit of having spectacular plants to add to our gardens. Not all milkweed plants require the same conditions and each one differs slightly in size, leaf shape and bloom color. Like many natives, the use of “weed” in the name turns many gardeners away from these plants, but the fact is, most natives are wonderful plants that do fantastically in the residential landscape.

As stated above, butterfly weed (asclepias tuberosa) is what people relate to when they hear the term milkweed. Butterfly weed grows to be around 2-3 feet high and about the same in width. They have bright orange flowers that attract many species of bees and butterflies. They require partial to full sun and dry to medium soil. They do wonderfully in our clay soil and do not require any attention once established. Do not try to move these plants from out in the wild. They have a deep taproot and it’s very difficult to transplant one. Unlike most natives, garden centers are now selling butterfly weed. The monarch restoration campaign is working well at getting the word out, and it has prompted the demand for this plant, which is now readily available; though other milkweeds will still need to be purchased from a native plant nursery in Kentucky or ordered online from a reputable supplier. Hopefully this will aid the restoration efforts, and we can all help by planting more milkweed.

Swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata), also known as pink milkweed, is a fantastic plant for the areas in our yards that are moist to wet in full sun, though it is partial-shade tolerant. They can reach a height of 2-5 feet tall and they do require a lot of moisture. This would make them a great candidate in a rain garden or a problematic wet spot in your garden. I have this plant in an area that gets boggy when we have torrential down pours or many days of rain, but this area also gets completely dry in the summer and this milkweed has no issues. It also grows well in heavy clay as do many of our native plants. Swamp milkweed typically blooms between June to October, and has a rose-purple color.

Common milkweed (asclepias syriaca) is another milkweed found in Kentucky, as well as other states. This plant must be grown in full to partial sun. It will not tolerate shade, so pick a nice sunny place in your garden to enjoy this wonderful plant. This perennial gets tall, somewhere in the range of 3-5 feet, and blooms a light shade of pink, and typically blooms in June to July. One of the best qualities of this milkweed is the aroma, so plant it near your deck or patio to enjoy the wonderful scent on a breezy afternoon.

Another fantastic milkweed is purple milkweed (Asclepias purpurascens). This plant requires the same conditions as butterfly milkweed, so they can make a wonderful companion plant in a perennial bed or butterfly garden. Purple milkweed can reach a height of 2-4 feet, but usually averages around 3 feet. The purple flowers are gorgeous, and can make a stunning combination with other native plants that bloom yellow, like yarrow.

If you’re looking for a smaller milkweed, then white milkweed (asclepias variegate) is a good choice. Reaching only 1-3 inches tall, this lovely perennial can handle some light shade, but prefers full sun. Needing average to dry soil, drought conditions don’t bother this plant like most milkweeds. If you have gardens that are a good distance from your water hose and it’s too far to carry a watering can, this would fit the bill. White milkweed blooms late spring to early summer, and the blooms resemble tiny like snowballs.

These wonderful native plants represent just a few of the many colors of milkweed, and demonstrates the vast size, color, texture and conditional requirements. So when you hear or see the term milkweed, now you know that the orange butterfly weed is just one of many in the “Asclepias” family. If your goal is to help the monarch butterfly preservation campaign, to attract a vast amount of bees, butterflies, and other beneficial insects to your landscape, or to just simply add beauty through a wonderful display of colors, then planting milkweed in your backyard will complete all these goals and more. Again, don’t fall victim of the word weed when you hear these plants mentioned. Many native plants have the word weed in their names and they are not invasive or weedy. The fact is, many exotic plants are the ones wreaking havoc in our natural environments, not the native plants. So do yourself and Mother Nature a service, add milkweed to your garden, and watch the wonderful display of many colors.