The Milkweed Plant

Milkweed in Eastern Wyoming

Facts about the Milkweed Plant

Though milkweed isn’t exactly the kind of plant that people are absolutely clambering over to grow in their backyard (though this is changing a bit recently), it is one of the most widely recognized types of plants – and a lot of that has to do with the fact that there are more than 140+ known species of milkweed out there today!

A rather unique looking plant across the species, a major reason that so many people are starting to focus on milkweed has next to nothing to do with the actual plant itself and everything to do with the fact that it is so valuable for drawing in Monarch butterflies and adding a lot of “pop” to a garden or landscaping project.

If you’ve been looking for a bit of “inside information” pertaining to milkweed, are thinking about growing milkweed in your backyard, or just want to find out what the best way is to attract Monarch butterflies to your outdoor spaces with natural milkweed plants, you’re going to want to pay close attention to the details that we have for you below!

You aren’t going to be disappointed!

What is the Milkweed Plant, Anyway?

Milkweed plant seed pod

A milkweed pod releasing seeds. Image Credit: Gary Peeples/USFWS

Milkweed (carrying the scientific name Asclepius) is a genus of perennial plants that grow all throughout the world, and have more than 140 known species to date.

And though just about every single one of the individual milkweed species is rather different and distinct appearing as far as the buds are concerned, each and every one of them are interlinked closely with one another because of the milky sap that is produced inside of the plant.

In most cases, this milky sap is completely and totally harmless, but there are some species of milkweed plant that are known to be toxic to animals (especially insects) and even to human beings!

On the flip side down, there are also legends out there that milkweed is a natural healing medicine, and those legends actually greatly contributed to the naming of the genus itself.

After all, Asclepius is the name of the Greek God of Healing, and there are no small amounts of people out there today that still contend that the sap of milkweed is all that’s necessary to heal the human body from many of the things that ails it.

Rather low growing to the ground, milkweed can be found all over the world in a wife riding of different regions, and is considered to be one of the most flexible (as far as adaptation is concerned) plants on the planet today.

It has unique follicles that ripen and split open when the plant reaches its “prime age”, exposing the seeds to the wind so that they can be shuttled across a piece of property to grow a new patch of milkweed the following season.

Because of the milky sap we mentioned above, insects are naturally drawn to this particular plant – with Monarch butterflies falling in love with everything that this rather colorful looking plant has to offer.

We are going to touch a little bit on the Monarch attraction in just a bit, but understand that having milkweed on your property is almost always going to mean that you are going to have a considerable insect population around as well.

One of the most interesting and intriguing things about milkweed (specifically the toxic versions of this plant) is that it has somehow adapted itself to understand insects are attracted to it and has three primary defenses that it uses to fight off insect attack.

There are “hairs” on leaves, toxins that are released through the milky sap as mentioned above, and even latex fluids that are produced by the plant and excreted at the leaves to try and dissuade insects from landing on the plant and destroying it.

Recent research focusing in on the actual cellular structure and evolution of milkweed has shown that modern milkweed plants are actually shedding those defenses, and instead replacing them with an exponentially faster growing capability that allows them to regenerate and recover from insect damage so fast that they don’t even have to worry about defense any longer.

Scientists marvel over this development and breakthrough, and have been paying a considerable amount more attention to the humble milkweed after the discovery was unlocked just a few short years ago.

Why are people so crazy about milkweed?

A green milkweed pod by Randen Pederson

A green milkweed pod by Randen Pederson 

There are a couple of different reasons as to why people are so crazy about milkweed today, the way a lot of it has to do with the attraction of monarch butterflies that will touch on in just a bit.

Milkweed was always considered to be a bit of a pest plant, one that should (or could) be easily eliminated from a garden or backyard landscape, but around World War II things really started to change in the public perception of this plant shifted radically.

Resources during World War II were rather short, and entire industries searched or new raw materials to produce traditional products so that the overwhelming majority of traditional materials could go to the war effort.

Fiber, down, and a whole host of other “construction materials” for the textile industry were shifted away from consumer products to government issue, and that’s when pillow manufacturers and other textile industries begin to experiment with milkweed filament in their products.

They began to use milkweed commercially in pillows and a number of other applications (thanks to the high tensile strength and the insulating properties they offer), and today milkweed is grown commercially to be used as a filling in pillows that is hypoallergenic, incredibly light and airy, and more easily regulates temperatures than a more traditional filling material.

People have also harvested milkweed in the past for its milky white sap, using this liquid as part of a condensed sweetener marketed as an alternative to sugar. Though it hasn’t really quite caught on quite the same way as some of the other alternative sweeteners out there have, it is still harvested for this purpose today.

And, as mentioned above, milkweed plants also have a small amount of latex contained within them, and no major commercial endeavors have never been put under way to harvest this latex (there are easier and more cost-effective ways to produce the material), there was experimentation by Germans and US industries during World War II to find a way to make it commercially viable.

Finally, having milkweed in your garden is incredibly beneficial to the other plants that surround it. Not only is it fantastic at repelling insects that would otherwise destroy your garden (while attracting those that aren’t going to do much damage at all), but it also helps to brighten up the place with Monarch butterflies.

Is it possible to grow your own little patch of milkweed?

Showy Milkweed for Monarchs (Asclepias speciosa)

Showy Milkweed for Monarchs (Asclepias speciosa) Check out the seeds for this plant here.

Not only is it possible to grow your own milkweed, it’s downright simple and straightforward!

Obviously, you’re going to want to make sure that you purchase 100% legitimate milkweed seeds before moving forward – which is (actually) a bit more difficult than it seems on the surface.

Because there are so many people out there that want to attract Monarch butterflies to their garden with milkweed and demand for the seeds is higher today than almost ever before (outside of World War II), there are a lot of people out there selling counterfeit seeds of other plants – with unsuspecting customers not discovering the switcheroo has occurred until it’s too late!

Once you have secured legitimate seeds (sometimes they are actually referred to as “butterfly plants”), you’re going to want to establish those seeds in a small seed tray and start their life off indoors on a windowsill.

The milkweed should grow rather quickly, and in about a week or two you should be able to relocate it outside without it suffering any real damage whatsoever. From there, it’s going to begin to grow exponentially, spreading just a bit, in a rather controlled manner – especially for a plant known that’s actually named a weed.

You’ll want to make sure that the growth is contained and confined to the areas that you want it to spread throughout, and may even want to relocate milkweed plants that are starting to spirally little bit out of control to a more condensed area in your garden.

They aren’t going to fight for resources all that much, which makes them a picture-perfect “filler” next to species that are a little bit more demanding.

After they have established themselves in your garden, they are as close to a “set it and forget it” kind of plant as you are going to come across!

Attracting monarchs is a pretty neat side effect of having a lot of milkweed

Swamp milkweed with a feeding monarch butterfly

A monarch butterfly feeding on a swamp milkweed plant. Image courtesy of:

We have definitely touched on this a little bit above, but a lot of people today are getting into milkweed specifically to attract more Monarch butterflies than they would have in the past.

This is because Monarch caterpillars absolutely LOVE to feast on milkweed, and if there is a steady supply of food in the area in which they are born and grow, you had better believe that they are going to crystallize and go through metamorphosis in the same region – returning time after time to sit on the blossomed milkweeds season after season.

If you’re looking to increase the monarch butterfly population in your yard (or in your neighborhood, even) a patch of milkweed is going to do the trick!