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Butterfly Milkweed

Butterfly milkweed, a perennial wildflower, thrives in meadows and along roadsides, but they’re terrific in flower beds, too. These handsome native plants will attract lots of Monarch butterflies to your garden. Although a single plant produces many flowers and makes a colorful show all by itself, several clumps of milkweed here and there in the garden are even prettier, and they’ll attract more Monarchs. In a late-summer garden full of butterfly milkweed plants, the butterflies themselves sometimes seem to be more numerous than the blooms.

There are more than 100 species of butterfly milkweed, but one of the most common, and widely distributed, is Asclepias tuberosa, which has bright clusters of orange or yellow and orange flowers in summer and fall. The blooms are raised at the end of stalks two or three feet tall, so you can see them even if the plants are growing at the back of a flower bed. The flowers are bold, and they look very pretty with pastel asters, ornamental grasses, and the last roses of the season. Butterfly milkweed is also striking with the smoky purple flowers of Joe Pye weed or purple coneflowers.

It is easy to grow butterfly milkweed from seed sown directly in the garden, and fall sowing will insure a good display of flowers the following summer. Sow the seeds in a sunny spot, perhaps in a corner of a flower bed, where you can keep an eye on them as they come up. Seedlings will emerge in spring, and the plants will grow both taller and larger every year. Milkweed seeds are produced in pretty, pointed seedpods packed with seeds, each on a shimmering, feathery cluster of silk. When the pods open, the seeds fly with the wind to find their own spots. You can collect the seeds and pods and distribute them around the garden.

Milkweed flowers provide nectar for Monarch, Queens, and little hairstreak butterflies, and the Monarch larvae (caterpillars) find the leaves irresistible. By the end of the season, some plants may be nearly completely consumed by caterpillars — but don’t worry, they’ll be back stronger than ever next year, and the butterflies will be, too.

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Gardening Tip of the Day

  • Fall salad crops can be difficult to start because garden soil is often very warm when seeds need to be planted. To trick the internal mechanism that allows seeds to germinate in warm ground, freeze them for a week or two.
    Or start seeds indoors in flats where it’s cool, and transplant seedlings into the garden immediately after germination. Be sure to include winter or cold-hardy lettuce varieties when planting. They will take temperatures down into the 20s with little or no protection. ‘Little Caesar’, Buttercrunch’ lettuces, ‘Frizz E’endive and ‘Baby’s Leaf Hybrid’ spinach are good choices. When the thermometer dips below freezing, lay an old bed sheet or floating row cover directly over the lettuce, endive and spinach for protection.