Common milkweed is one of the most important plants for the Monarch Butterfly. It is the larval host, and is enjoyed by many other pollinators and insects. This native perennial grows best in full sun, well-drained soil. Typically reaching 3-4’ in height, it is commonly found in ditches, fence rows, or anywhere that has been disturbed. It doesn’t always do well against competition of taller native prairie grasses or taller perennials.
The value of this plant to our ecosystem and the Monarch Butterfly can’t be overstated. The flowers feed numerous butterflies, bees, and moths. The leaves feed Monarch Caterpillars and milkweed bugs, as well as other insects.
The name Asclepias is from Aklepios, which is the ancient Greek God of medicine
The name Syricia was initially assigned as the naturalist mistakenly thought this plant came from Syria
This plant can help attract Monarch Butterflies to your yard, if you have enough specimens
Common Milkweed is a very showy Native perennial that is loved by pollinators, as well as other species
The sap in milkweed leaves is toxic to many animals. Monarch and other species of caterpillar/bugs eat the leaves to get the sap. Ingesting the sap in turn makes these insects toxic to many natural predators, thereby increasing their survival chances. This is a very cleaver form of evolution.
Scientific Name of Common Milkweed
Common Milkweed – General Description and growing conditions
This plant will grow 2-8’ tall, with the upper end of the range only occurring in the most optimum conditions (typically in a flower garden). The main stalk is unbranched except where flowers are near the top. There are large, smooth opposite leaves occurring on the stalk that are 6-8” long and several inches wide. If you cut a leaf in half, you will see a sap ooze out that is milky in appearance, and toxic to humans and other mammals. These opposite leaf configurations make this plant very easy to identify by amature gardeners and naturalists alike.
The flowers are clusters (umbels) of small flowers approximately 3-5” long and are very intricate and delightful to look at. These individual flowers are approximately ¼” long, and have petals sticking above the stamen (raised hoods) and below (reflexed petals). Seed pods that are several inches long will form in the fall, and split open distributing seed via wind. Milkweed seeds can travel far and wide on a breezy day, allowing this plant another good method of self-propagation in addition to spreading locally by underground roots (rhizomes).
Where to find Common Milkweed
You’ve probably seen large stands of milkweed growing in ditches, farm fields, and clearings your whole life. They grow well in a variety of conditions, and can be quite prolific.
Once you can recognize the general shape of the plant and its leaves, you won’t have any trouble spotting this while driving around. They are very common throughout the United States and Canada!
Common Milkweed Growing Conditions
This plant is tolerant of a wide variety of soil types, from soils that are mostly clay, or just loam, or even mostly sand. It just needs to be well drained, which explains why you often see it growing on the sides of a ditch, but not in the bottom. Full sun is desirable to this plant, as too much shade and it will not thrive and could die. So, to get the best performance from your plants you should always mimic the conditions that it grows in the wild, and in this case that means wide open spaces with plenty of sun.
Since this plant spreads via rhizome, it is best in a wildflower garden or micro-prairie. Alternatively it would be quite OK to make a dedicated flower bed for this plant, where mowing was possible around it. Since this plant spreads via rhizome and has the ability to get quite tall, it is important to carefully consider where you will plant.
>>Click on image below to learn how to make your own micro-prairie!
Growing Milkweed From Seed
Common milkweed is pretty easy to grow from seed. Just make sure you cold stratify the seeds prior to planting, either in the refrigerator, moist paper towel in plastic Ziploc bag, or just winter sow the seeds. Common recommendations is to stratify for 30-60 days.
The easiest way is to either direct sow in the fall, or plant in pots and winter-sow them. Here is a link to a short video we made on how we prepare the pots/seeds for winter sowing milkweed seeds.
Milkweed seed planting depth
Plant milkweed seeds by pressing them into firm soil, or lightly covering with soil after planting. Planting the seeds deep will likely result in low germination (probably none).
Once temperatures begin to warm up, start checking your Milkweed seeds. They will germinate a couple weeks after temperatures reliably are warming up. Once the plants get several inches tall, they can be planted out into the garden.
Faunal Associations of Common Milkweed
This plant attracts a large amount of pollinators and other insects. Common milkweed could be considered one of the most important plants in the Central to Eastern half of North America, as there are over 400 species that feed on the plant for nectar or the leaves. Here is a list of just some of the species this plant will attract;
Common milkweed is generally not browsed by deer or rabbits as the leaves taste quite bitter and are toxic. [UPDATE] One of our readers has stated in the comments below that woodchucks or ground hogs will browse Milkweed. We would appreciate any other experiences you might have had, so please, let us know! We use LIQUID FENCE to protect our young plants, so you may consider that as an option for your gardens.
Warning – Milkweed is toxic and must be carefully prepared before being consumed internally. Do not eat this plant in any way. You’ve been warned.
Milkweed has been used for thousands of years medicinally, food, cloth and for cordage. The leaves are edible if carefully prepared, however you should not consume milkweed due to its toxicity.
Native Americans boiled (several times) young buds, shoots, and stems and ate these as vegetables. Others drank an infusion of the roots of common milkweed with some other native plants (Virgin’s ower).
The Cherokee used this plant to treat a variety of venereal diseases, as well as a laxative Others used it to prevent hemorrhaging after child births, as well as to induce milk flow after childbirth.
Milkweed Fiber Uses
The fiber of milkweed stalks are quite strong and can be used for making rope. A primitive, coarse cloth can be made from weaving the fiber. In Autumn, once the stalk has dried and you can break the stalk off at the ground the fiber can be harvested. Remove the outer layer of the stalk by hand once dry, and the fibers can be accessed. Remove the fibers and draw them over a hard surface. Then twist the fiber opposite and form the cord.
Common Milkweed Reference Table
Click to enlarge!
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Hi - I grew up outdoors in nature - hiking, fishing, hunting. In high school I got my first job at a garden center where I learned to garden and landscape. I've been growing plants from seed and designing native plant gardens for over six years. I hope to share some of my knowledge with you!
Additionally I am a wood worker / DIY enthusiast. I enjoy designing/building projects (with hand tools when I can!). I hope to give you some tips and useful information!