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Plant it So They will Come

Native Milkweed is an Invitation for Pollinators!



Monarch butterflies rely on milkweed (Asclepias spp. and cvs., Zones 3–9) as their primary host plant. As the monarchs’ western migration teeters on vanishing completely within years and the eastern migration faces large swaths of now-absent prairie, gardeners and conservationists can make a difference by planting more milkweed and the natural plant communities that grow along with it. Across the United States there are some 73 species in the Asclepias genus, native to practically every locale, with the greatest diversity in the Southern Plains and the Southwest.

Frankly, it’s pretty amazing that we have as many milkweed species as we do, given how complex they are to pollinate. The process requires an insect to slip a leg into a very narrow slit between the flower anthers, extract a sticky, waxy ball of pollen, then reverse the process on another bloom. Occasionally, an insect loses a leg in the process or becomes permanently stuck in the flower.


When you grow milkweed, you may notice monarch caterpillars feeding alongside other species such as ­tussock moths, milkweed beetles, or milkweed bugs. Consider this exciting proof that your ecosystem is thriving. If you see yellow oleander aphids, don’t rush to spray the plant with water—you might also knock off a monarch egg or young caterpillar. Instead, strive to create a layered, diverse garden that supports beneficial predators that will control the aphids naturally.



Milkweed at a glance • Asclepias spp. and cvs.

Diseases: If plants exhibit symptoms of a pathogen infection, such as wilting or yellowing leaves, do not spray. Instead, remove and dispose of the affected parts to prevent the infection of healthy plants.

Conditions: Most milkweeds prefer full sun and well-drained soil, but some are adapted to grow in full to partial shade and moist to wet soil.

Grow it from seed: To help milkweed germinate, surface-sow the seed on weed-free garden soil in fall or early winter.


Poke milkweed likes it a little shady


Distribution

A. exaltata

Zones: 3–7

Native range: Shady, moist woodland edges, clearings, and shores of the Midwest, Appalachia, northeastern United States, and southeastern Canada

Poke milkweed reaches 3 to 5 feet tall and 1 to 2 feet wide. It grows best in morning sun, dappled shade, or open woodlands, and well-drained soil is a must. One of the more shade-tolerant milkweed species, it may hybridize with common milkweed if they are close together. While not as showy as other species, it nevertheless fills an important ecological niche in natural shade gardens.

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