It’s all the rage to plant butterfly gardens in our home landscapes. This is especially true when we consider the monarch butterfly, which is said to be under stress from disappearing habitats.
One of the best butterfly-attracting plants for the home landscape is butterfly weed, known botanically as Asclepias. Butterfly weed has three great advantages: it is low maintenance, deer resistant and attractive to monarchs and other butterflies.
Asclepias is also known as milkweed for its milky-white latex sap. There are several species native to Mississippi, but one you should consider is Asclepias tuberosa. This native perennial plant was named a Mississippi Medallion winner in 2012, and it grows well all across the state. Mississippi Medallion plants are selected for their superior garden and landscape performance.
This plant has an upright, clumping growth habit. The clusters of tubular flowers that become prominent in late summer and early fall are various shades of orange, but some flowers shade toward yellow or red. I wouldn’t try to dig up any clumps you find growing in the wild, as this plant produces a deep tap root and doesn’t tolerate transplanting. Try growing them from seed in a container, and then transplant when the new plants are large enough.
A nonnative species of butterfly weed that blooms from spring through fall is the tropical milkweed, Asclepias currassavica. Many garden centers carry this plant, as it blooms and provides early-season forage for caterpillars. I have friends posting pictures on social media showing monarch caterpillars already forming chrysalises on their tropical butterfly weed plants.
The problem I’ve observed with tropical milkweed is it is also a magnet for aphids. While unsightly, they don’t seem to affect growth or flowering. I don’t like to use a pesticide to remedy this problem, but blasting the plants every couple of days with the garden hose does knock off many.
Monarch Promise is a fun new selection of tropical milkweed that I started growing last year. This colorful variegated plant is very attractive to monarchs and is pretty in the garden. The margins of the foliage have a cream color with alternating highlights of red and blushing pink. These colors are enhanced when my plants grow in full sun.
If you’re planning to create a butterfly habitat, don’t rely entirely on tropical milkweed, as there is concern the plants may host a protozoan parasite that can harm butterflies. But a couple of these fast-growing plants are good sources of forage until the native species start producing enough caterpillar food.
There’s still plenty of time to plant butterfly weed in your home garden so you can enjoy colorful monarch butterflies as they visit this summer.
Gary Bachman is a professor of horticulture at the Coastal Research and Extension Center in Biloxi.