There are few insects more iconic or eye-catching than the monarch butterfly. We can attribute the existence of these beauties to their host plant: milkweed. Native to North America, milkweed comes in a wide variety of species and colors — it's the perfect addition to any landscaping project.
Plant your milkweed in the ground for best results; these bushy perennials are happiest with their feet firmly rooted. Milkweed plants should be planted between 18 and 24 inches apart and no deeper than the existing soil line of their original containers. Once transplanted, water thoroughly every day for two weeks.
The milkweed plant can tolerate a wide variety of soil conditions, and some species even thrive in conditions that would spell disaster for others. Planting milkweed in a mix that contains peat is ideal, as soils heavy on the clay pose an unnecessary risk of suffocating the roots.
Although it is preferable to plant your milkweed in the ground, the plants can survive in containers. Milkweed plants are best displayed in arrangements with other species that attract pollinators, such as pentas or angelonia, in large ceramic planters. This allows for ample root space and optimal growth, while maintaining a cleaner look.
Milkweed loves to bask in hot sunshine. These plants require a full day's worth of sunlight — that means anywhere from 6 to 8 hours of direct sun exposure every day. Be sure to plant your milkweed in the sunniest spot possible, usually a western exposure. Never allow a milkweed plant to sit in shade for too long.
This drought-tolerant plant proves its resiliency by requiring little to no water from you. Once established in the ground, nature seems to be enough to keep the milkweed plant happy. When initially planted, it is wise to water frequently until new growth appears. In times of extreme drought, a little water at the roots won't hurt.
In the fall, the blooms of the milkweed plant mature to produce hundreds of individual seeds adorned with a frilled silk thread. These seed pods burst and release their cargo in the air to float far away and begin anew. You can expedite the process by collecting the seeds yourself and scattering them on moist soil to germinate.
Thanks to their native status, the milkweed plant has everything it needs to stay happy and healthy already in the soil. Applying extra fertilizer is unnecessary and a waste of money. It is suggested that, at the very most, a light layer of organic compost be added as a topdressing once a year.
Unfortunately for gardeners, host plants aren't only host to their intended insect but also a wide variety of pests. Milkweed is no exception and is prone to aphids, whiteflies, and leaf miners. Pesticides are out of the question as you risk harming the monarch caterpillars or rendering the plant toxic. Regular applications of live ladybugs can help control soft-bodied insect populations.
When not plagued by pests, two common ailments can infect your milkweed plant: fungus and leaf spot. A general fungal infection usually appears like black mildew on the leaves. Leaf spot is typically a bacterial infection characterized by small pinprick dots on the leaves. To treat both, remove affected leaves immediately.
Some might argue that the milkweed plant is a rather unimpressive weed, but their importance to the environment and global ecosystem is unrivaled. As the exclusive host plant of the monarch butterfly, we have a responsibility to conserve this plant and ensure its survival for the benefit of pollinators like butterflies and bees. Without them, agriculture would collapse. Add to that, ease of care and self-sustainability makes milkweed an ideal plant to have around.