Tropical Milkweed: To Plant it or Not, it’s Not a Simple Question

Dara Satterfield SM
Dara Satterfield, PhD Candidate at the University of Georgia, is studying Monarch butterflies and OE. Courtesy photo

Graduate student Dara Satterfield came to town in late January for the second time in 12 months to take the pulse of the Monarch butterfly population at the San Antonio River Museum Reach Milkweed Patch.

There, dozens of Tropical milkweed plants play year round host to Monarch butterflies.   Satterfield works closely with local volunteers like Mary Kennedy and Mobi Warren of the Monarch Larvae Monitoring Project (MLMP), a citizen scientist program, to monitor milkweed patches far and wide for egg, caterpillar, chrysalis and butterfly action that might shed light on the state of the Monarch butterfly migration.

Monarch on Tropical Milkweed
Monarch butterflies LOVE Tropical milkweed. But is it appropriate to plant it? Photo by Monika Maeckle

Satterfield, like other scientists, believes the increased availability of  Asclepias curassavica, commonly known as Tropical milkweed, coupled with our warmer winters, may have an unhealthy impact on Monarch butterflies and their migration.   The science is undetermined on that question.

A native of  Marietta, Georgia, Satterfield attends the University of Georgia where she is a PhD candidate whose dissertation focuses on the relationship between migration and infectious disease in wildlife.  Monarchs are her species focus.  Satterfield works closely with Monarch scientist Dr. Sonia Altizer, the foremost expert in the country on Ophryocystis elektroscirrha, or OE. The unpronouceable protozoan disease infects Monarchs and other milkweed feeders, often resulting in butterfly crippling or death.

Dara Satterfield
Dara Satterfield checks Monarch butterflies at the San Antonio River Museum Reach Milkweed Patch for OE.           Photo by Monika Maeckle

As winters get warmer, Asclepias curassavica, the only milkweed species commercially available, is less likely to die back in winter. Some scientists hypothesize that A. curassavica entices Monarchs to forego migration and winter in the U.S. This could create an unhealthy hotbed of lingering OE spores for caterpillars and butterflies that remain in the local area.

Since the spores transfer from creature to creature via physical contact with each other or the plants on which they rest or eat, scientists worry that local OE-infested Monarchs will infect and breed with populations that are passing through, possibly jeopardizing the migration.

The situation exacerbates an already serious decline in the Monarch migration.  Drought, genetically modified crops, late summer wildfires, and generally inhospitable conditions pose multiple threats to Monarchs and their migration.   It’s likely that 2012 will be the worst year, numbers wise, in Monarch butterfly migration history since records have been kept.

“Monarchs are famous for this migration so when we see what appears to be a break in their migratory pattern, we want to know why and what the implications are,” said Satterfield.

OE Spores with Monarch Butterfly Scales
Eeeew! OE spores look like little footballs next to Monarch Butterfly Scales–photo courtesy of MLMP

But butterfly breeders and enthusiasts argue that OE is like staphylococcus–present in the general population and becoming a threat only under stressed circumstances. Organizations like the International Butterfly Breeders Association promote best practices for limiting OE in captive environments through education of its membership and seminars on managing and limiting its presence.  And yet others believe that OE is simply a part of the evolutionary cycle, killing those butterflies less fit than others.

For butterfly hobbyists and gardeners, the “curassavica question” presents a quandary:  should we be planting Tropical milkweed or not?

“This is a very sensitive subject in the Monarch world,”  said Satterfield.   “We just don’t have the data right now.” It will take three or four more years to complete Satterfield’s research.   She advises that natives are always better–which is true, IF you can find them and meet their persnickety growing needs.   Organizations like Monarch Watch and the Xerces Society‘s have launched milkweed restoration campaigns, but wide availability of native stock is still a dream.

If you DO plant curassavica, many scientists suggest cutting it to the ground in winter–unless yours is a research site like the Milkweed Patch on the San Antonio River Museum Reach.  Scientists encouraged the City of San Antonio and San Antonio River Authority to leave our milkweed patch alone as an experiment.   Interestingly, the San Antonio patch brags a lower incidence of OE (15%) than in other monitoring sites observed (47%) by the Monarch Larvae Monitoring Project.   The 47% figure is SIX TIMES the rate of OE in Monarchs that migrate to Mexico.

Satterfield suggested that a deluge of milkweed beetles at the Patch this winter decimated not only the foliage, but OE spores.  The hungry orange-and-black bugs pruned much of the diseased growth, creating a better balance for the butterflies. Apparently Mother Nature has her own way of managing the OE problem.

Milkweed beetles have defoliated the Milkweed Patch. But aren't they cute?
Mother Nature on the case: Milkweed beetles defoliated the Milkweed Patch last spring, cleaning out OE spores in the process. Photo by Monika Maeckle

“This may have removed any OE spores on the milkweed plants, which probably helped to keep the prevalence of OE low this year,” said Satterfield. She added that since our Milkweed Patch is further inland and enjoys cooler temperatures than coastal situations in Houston and Florida, the Monarch population was lower and perhaps more hearty.

In the meantime, gardeners are left to make their own calls.   Is it better to have a questionable milkweed source in your yard to provide Monarchs with nectar and host plant, or not?  

Let’s see: Tropical milkweed is easy to grow, widely available, prolific bloomer, favorite host plant for Monarchs and a great nectar source for all butterflies.   I know where I come down on that.   You’ll see Tropical milkweed in my yard.   But I’ll be sure to keep it out of wildscapes and ranch situations, and slash it to the ground in the winter.  

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79 Responses

  1. […] and pollinator garden, plus all sorts of other butterfly related topics, including the question of tropical milkweed. The Wildflower Center also writes about the making of butterfly […]

  2. Barb Slater
    | Reply

    I am from Ohio visiting Kure Beach. I had to bring 70 plus caterpillars and 30 eggs with me on vacation because I had no one to watch them. I packed my cooler full of milkweed but am quickly running out! Is there milkweed to be found on Kure Beach, NC. I need help. Barb

  3. J. Walters
    | Reply

    Non-native plants have the potential to be invasive.
    How many times have we heard that we need to use plants to support wildlife, erosion etc. and had them backfire?
    Kudzu, honeysuckle, etc.
    The ecosystem as a whole has to be considered instead of just one species such as the monarch. If we change the habitat we may cause serious future harm. We need to work hard to restore the natives. Only then will we be helping all the butterflies and pollinators.

  4. lyn
    | Reply

    Akea has a wonderful net collapsible laundry basket with lid that is perfect for raising butterflies. Adding in a few more Velcro strips is a good idea or put weight on the top closure.

  5. Lou Dar
    | Reply

    I got some tropical milkweed seeds and balloon plant milkweed seeds. Is it too late in the year to plant them in zone 8? Do they need stratification, scarification, or to be refrigerated before planting? Thank you!

  6. […] Seven Tropical milkweed,  Asclepias curassavica  grow here, though are currently looking poorly and mostly munched.  This spring the plants fed some Queen Butterfly larvae, which have pupated, and at least one Monarch larva, which also pupated. I’ve also planted scads of white Tropical sage because they seed out prolifically and the bees and I love them. There are also Purple coneflowers that haven’t yet hit their stride this season, as well as a culinary sage and some larger perennial shrubs, not yet active. The Brazos blackberry vine is weedy and thorny (ouch!!), but oh those blackberries are tasty as they come off in May and June.  So, it stays. […]

  7. Jayne Wilson
    | Reply

    I live in Houston and we have lots of tropical milkweed. I’ve tried numerous times to get native milkweed growing in our yard, with no success.
    Last year I noticed a lot of OE related problems – either caterpillars didn’t make it to the chrysalis stage, or the chrysalis never hatched, or the butterfly was deformed and couldn’t fly. It was heartbreaking.
    I cut all my milkweed back to six inch stubs over the winter and they are now sprouting lots of new growth. And not a minute too soon — there were two female Monarchs laying eggs today.
    I’ve also got some native milkweed plants on order that should be arriving soon. Hopefully I will have better luck with them this year.

    • Adolf
      | Reply

      Good Luck with it!
      I still have several months till i see Monarchs! (Virginia)

    • Joanne
      | Reply

      Hi Jayne! I’m in Houston too! Would love another caterpillar mom to talk to about my experiences. Just started raising caterpillars inside. Have been pretty successful thus far but as expected have experienced a few problems recently. Just this morning I had a tachinid fly maggot emerge from a chrysalis. Oh joy! 8p
      Anyway, not sure if you feel the same way, but when these things happen sure would be nice to talk with someone who may be experiencing similar things. I always look for advice/camaraderie on these types of sites, but it’s tough when you don’t hear back for weeks if ever.
      Anyway, I’m just a mom in the Heights trying to help the Monarchs out. If you’d ever like to chat, shoot me an email at jvestalvarez at gmail. Thanks!

    • JoAnn Trial
      | Reply

      I have a few seedlings of non-tropical milkweed that I would be willing to give you. Also plan on trying to go down to the coast and collect perennis. It seems to do better in Houst than our native viridis and asperula.

    • Pat daniel
      | Reply

      You still doing monarchs?

  8. […] Late-blooming Tropical Milkweed may cause Monarchs to delay their migration, thus throwing off their timing. It might even cause Monarchs to forgo migration altogether, stay near stands of Tropical Milkweed, and overwinter in warmer parts of the U.S. This would put them at risk of unfavorable environmental conditions or diseases such as that caused by the protozoan Ophrocystis elektroscirrha, which infects butterflies feeding on milkweed. Some experts recommend cutting Tropical Milkweed to the ground in the Fall to prevent these problems. Read more about this problem here. […]

  9. Betty.stephenson
    | Reply

    On the Texas gulf coast end of sept and 1st of October 2015. Proud grandparent I thought of only 12 cats….two days later 36 munching on the aphid destroyed and most pathetic milkweed ever, they are cleaning up.
    I’m trying to move the cats around to the better milkweed on other side of the yard. I hope the smaller ones make it due to the lack of healthy bushes left.
    I have been a monarch observer and landlord for many years.
    I have noticed the decline and was very worried .
    Hadn’t had any monarchs for 2 years. This year only 2 who layed many times.
    2 days later another tired single one showed. I just worry all the milkweed is now gone, will they hurry and turn without making it full size. Have had queens and fritillary, but so happy to have monarchs back…I hope they all survive…wasp love to sting and kill monarchs!! Maybe they will survive another generation. It’s the Texas insect and when you tell people we are in jeopardy of losing our state insect…they listen. It’s easy to encourage others to be caretakers of our beautiful, precious flying gems.

  10. Bill Sekerak
    | Reply

    A recent study indicated that much milkweed habitat was and is being destroyed,along with fields of existing milkweed, due to reclamation of fallow land being brought into commercial corn production. This is occurring in response to the Federal governments heavy subsidation of corn grown specifically to meet the demand for corn ethanol. The demand for corn ethanol is caused by a distortion of corn commodity markets due to Federal law requiring a greater and greater percentage of ethanol added to each gallon of gasoline on a yearly basis.
    This law is indirectly responseable for a much of the loss of wild milkweed in the US. Additionally ethanol production causes more pollution than its addition to gasoline saves because to get the same amount of energy as is produced from gasoline you have to burn much more ethanol than gasoline. On top of that ethanol above a certain percent, when added to gasoline, has been shown to damage engines.
    It’s then obvious that the Federal laws requiring ethanol as an additive to gasoline is destructive to the Monarch butterfly population, by causing the destruction of milkweed habitat, causes more air pollution than it saves, damages engines and distorts capital investment.
    I urge all of you to point out these facts to your Federal representatives and demand the repeal of this destructive and inane law that basically benefits a single company at great environmental and monetary expense ie. Archer Midlands Daniels better known as ADM. It’s corporate welfare and crony Capitalism that has to stop.
    In the meantime I am doing my best to keep about 50 cats going from cat to butterfly. Thankfully my local nursery carries two varieties and has a lot of plants.

  11. Lisa
    | Reply

    hi, does anyone know how far a caterpillar can travel from the milkweed plant before making their chrysalis? We can’t see them on the plant anymore – and want to know how far away we need to search?

    • Sandy Sweeney
      | Reply

      I found a 5th instar cat on the grass in the middle of a mowed field in a park. The field was about the size of a football field but not used as such. No milkweed anywhere in sight and not even tallish grass.

  12. Linna Howard
    | Reply

    Hello Monarch Butterfly People….I have just started to reacquaint myself to the butterfly again….Was raised on 150 acres in Maine, of course milkweed and a lot of other wild plants were el-natural and I enjoyed the beautiful creatures….
    I am now living in So. Calif and want to start my garden again inviting the monarchs ….I have just purchased Asclepia curassavica…is it a good choice and in my days we used glass jars with holes in the lid….but am not familiar with plastic!!!…Help me with some great success stories please…Have a wonderful day….Little Farmer’s Daughter from New England….

    • Tamara Potter
      | Reply

      Welcome to Southern California. I am in Thousand Oaks. Whereabouts are you. There are quite a few over wintering sites here on the California coast. The year year started out early, then there was a lull here in TO. Now it’s thriving. Just found 25 eggs this morning and have 30 caterpillars. All eating as over wintering monarchs should eat.

  13. Michele
    | Reply

    I live in San Antonio. , I have 3 original tropical milkweed plants and dozens of volunteer plants growing in my part sun / part shade garden. Up until this summer, the plants had prolific blossoms all season long. This year, though none of my milkweed plants are blooming. Does anybody have any idea why? If they have blossoms at all, the blossoms don’t open. I don’t know if something’s wrong with the plants or if something is eating the blossoms. Is anybody aware of pests on these plants? Thank you for your help.

  14. Gregory
    | Reply

    I actually live in Marietta. In the past 2-4 years I have planted a little bit of what I believe is milkweed, one has orange flowers and the other has orange and yellow flowers. I have seen a few butterflies around, not as many as say ten years ago, but no caterpillars. What type of milkweed is best for the Marietta area, where can I get it, and is there a minimum amount of live milkweed necessary to attract butterflies?
    Thank you.

    • Monika Maeckle
      | Reply

      Gregory, you should consult your local Master Gardener chapter. You can also goto or the Monarch Watch website and find out more about which species are appropriate for your region. Good luck!

  15. Lenora Heiple
    | Reply

    Can I raise butterflies in cold Illinois?

    • Kit Goodwin
      | Reply

      Of course you can raise Monarchs in Illinois! It has been “cold” here in Ohio too. We are hovering between 65 and 80, with rain almost every day! I have not seen any Monarchs on the wing, have you?
      Summers like this are unusual, but they are not unheard of. Back when Monarch populations were greater, we still had the occasional cold, rainy summer… as is common in “El Nino” years. Monarchs did not suffer decline from those years – decline happened as a result of widespread killing off of milkweed in the breadbasket areas (including Illinois) and the shrinking of the forests in Mexico, as well as the increased pesticide use in farming. Illinois has always been a natural part of the Monarch range.

  16. Tamara Potter
    | Reply

    How come no-one talks about the Tachinid Fly. I live in Southern California and lose more cats and chrisalides to the fly then OE. Our “organic farms ” over the hill from where I live buy them by the millions.

    • Lori
      | Reply

      Right on! I hardly ever saw them in Houston, but now I moved to Pa near a lot of organic farms and I see them all the time on my milkweed!

    • Bill Sekerak
      | Reply

      There are other methods of caterpillar control that are still natural but would not migrate from the area of application. If I am not mistaken their is a bacteria that is effective in controlling pest caterpillars but it stays where it is delivered ( sprayed in a solution) and cannot fly away.

  17. Kim
    | Reply

    This is a MUST watch TED talk if one is deciding this issue on Asclepias Curassavica.

  18. Adolf
    | Reply

    I love to help the Monarchs, they are beautiful creatures.
    I started last year with milkweed and to my surprise, I had a good amount of cats. I was just happy as a little kid. But one day they where almost all gone. Then a new batch came, and again, they disappeared. It took a while till i found out that my birds (which I love and feed too) ate the cats. I was thinking to put an bird net over my butterfly area, but then the butterflies might have a hard time to get to it. Does anybody have some experience with that?

    • CAS
      | Reply

      I have had the same problem, the birds eating my cats. Does anyone have an answer to keep them safe?

  19. […] Tropical Milkweed: To Plant it or Not, It’s Not a Simple Question […]

  20. […] gardens—all reputable and affordable sources for healthy native milkweed. Tropical Milkweed (A. curassavica) is non-native and produces year round, which some argue may throw off the monarch’s instinct to […]

  21. […] solution, then, according to the majority of startlingly dated articles and a charity effort continuing to […]

  22. Kari O.
    | Reply

    I live in Santa Cruz CA, one of the monarch’s overwintering sites. What about planting tropical milkweed here? The monarchs would be here anyway so it doesn’t seem like it would be interfering with migration patterns but maybe there are other concerns. I’d welcome any information on this!

    • Ruth Olmsted
      | Reply

      sounds ideal to me, go for it

  23. Ruth Olmsted
    | Reply

    Christa, just went to your address above, it says page does not exist, but when I clicked on “home” it came up. There was no way to leave comments, so I am back here. Your pictures are lovely, I am so impressed. Would love to hear your plastic box results, hope Monika does not mind if I leave my email, I am in Georgetown, Texas

    • Christa
      | Reply

      Hi Ruth, thank you for your suggestions and comments. I want to make sure I am helping rather than hurting the caterpillars. If you want to check my post again, try this and see if it works better:

    • Rick
      | Reply

      Ruth – I’m here in GT Texas too and very interested in propagating antelope horn milkweed as well as tropical for the benefit of monarchs and butterflys in general. Can I contact you offline to see your garden and grab some ideas? Thanks, Rick

  24. Christa
    | Reply

    I am so glad to come across your article. I planted a few tropical milkweed plants this spring and have had great luck with the Monarch butterfly reproduction cycle. I adore the flowers because I think they are stunning and they are so easy to grow and propagate. I have read a few articles suggesting that growing tropical milkweed was bad for the Monarchs because of the fact that this milkweed lingers longer than it should, thus confusing the butterflies and promoting diseases that are detrimental to the Monarchs. Our juvenile Monarchs only lingered for less than a day before they took off and tropical milkweed dies back in Virginia in the winter. After reading your article, I feel more confident to continue growing tropical milkweed. As you said, it seems that if we make sure that there is no milkweed around when it starts to get cold, that would be a good solution (instead of not growing them at all). Thank you for your article. You can see what I have done at

    • Monika Maeckle
      | Reply

      Thank you for the thoughtful comment, Christa. Yes, some folks are purists, but climate is changing our world. Zones for plants and butterflies are moving north as things heat up. As long as you cut it to the ground, I think that should serve well until science directs us further. Thanks for writing. MM

      • Christa
        | Reply

        Hi Monika, at your advice, I have moved 7 caterpillars into safety. I have set up my “condo” with 3 potted milkweed plants in a plastic container. Because my plants are tall, I am using a large piece of cheesecloth to cover the condo. I have 3 questions: (1) will the caterpillars stay in the condo until they become butterflies; (2) if yes, do I need to provide them a different plant or a hard top so they can go into their chrysalis phase; (3) if they need to leave the condo in order to go into the chrysalis phase, how do I know when it’s time and where do I take them to? Thanks, Christa

        • Ruth Olmsted
          | Reply

          Do you mind if I reply also? I am wondering if cheesecloth holes might be too big to keep predators out. Yes you hope they stay in till they become butterflies, if they don’t escape through the holes. They will attach to the cheesecloth. I hope they get enough circulation in the plastic box. Please keep us posted. Another thing, in the spring I put my enclosure in the sun because the plants don’t do that well in shade. The cats did not like that. Instead of the top of the enclosure, they made their chrysalis along the bottom of the pot. So now I have 8 new cats back under the porch overhand.

  25. Karen
    | Reply

    I live on the north side of Houston (The Woodlands area) and plant natives and pollinator attracting plants in my garden. I purchased what I believe is A. currassavica and it’s proliferating nicely. We have property in Normangee in Leon County (post oak savannah) and I am wondering if it’d be detrimental if I spread some seeds there. We do not run cattle anymore and have 100 acres of pasture. Is this species a native and what are your thoughts on establishing a pocket of milkweed to help with the monarch migration path?
    Thanks for your help,

  26. Ruth Olmsted
    | Reply

    I didn’t see the email notification till I hit submit, so this post says nothing new, just serves to subscribe me.

  27. Ruth Olmsted
    | Reply

    If you cut off the bare stems and stick them in the ground, most will grow new plants. for the poor starving cats left, maybe take them to a nursery selling milkweed and place them on the plants. They will eat nothing else. If you put those bare stems in water, roots should form, another way to propagate I hear, but I just stick them in dirt. I starved my first year’s cats by not having enough plants. So now I plant a LOT. Here in central Texas the tropical plants freeze in the winter, so I hope I needn’t worry about OE.

  28. Carrie
    | Reply

    Can you tell me what the Monarch caterpillers eat?

    • Monika Maeckle
      | Reply


  29. Barrie
    | Reply

    This is a great article and thank you for writing it. I wanted to make two comments. I’ve been associated with UGA since 1986 and we are very proud of our researchers.
    Please note that Asclepias tuberosa is widely available commercially and that native plants are not persnickity (sp). Asclepias tuberosa is no more difficult to grow than tropical milkweed.
    Thanks again for a great article.

  30. […] Butterfly Ranch wrote a fascinating article focusing on research into the effects overwintering of tropical milkweed could have on monarch butterfly populations. Maeckle provides an overview of research being done at the University of Georgia by Ph.D. […]

  31. […] Texas Butterfly Ranch reported that a tropical milkweed research patch left overwinter in San Antonio had an occurrence of 15% OE…however, other monitoring sites observed by the Monarch Larva Monitoring Project had 47%! This is 6 times the OE levels of the monarch population returning from Mexico. […]

  32. Michael
    | Reply

    I live in South Florida.
    So try to understand, every American gardening guide/book/blog/website is pretty much geared around more temperate regions that have “seasons” such as “winter, summer, spring,” and so on as opposed to “hot season, hotter season, rainy season, post-rainy-hot season, and hurricane season” like we have here.
    So I’m going to plant curassavica without the slightest remorse whatsoever. The only question I have, is what to do with a plant that has been stripped bare to where the caterpillars are munching on bare stalks and there are still some fifteen to twenty that still need to eat?

    • Cindy Nosduh
      | Reply

      I live in Palm Beach and I have had this same issue. This year I am trying to have 3 different sets of milkweed at 3 different stages, blooming, partially eaten, and stripped bare. Hopefully this rotation will bring success, if not I will just purchase more plants. Best wishes. BTW I have had success with rooting cuttings in water, try it!

      • Julie Norsworthy
        | Reply

        I have been rooting milkweed in water for a long time…when I cut back my plants I use the cuttings to make new plants. I also live in Florida and the milkweed requires as much care as the caterpillars!!

    • Anna Johnson
      | Reply

      this is a common problem as the caterpillers are voracious eaters and even some of the experts underestimate the huge number of milkweed plants that you will need. I planted 5 times more milkweed than I thought that I would need and I just barely had enough. I planted over 100 plants just inches apart.

  33. Kenneth Ayer
    | Reply

    Asclepias tuberosa is also available commercially. I receent bought some from

    • Kenny McKinney
      | Reply

      Green antelope horn is native to OKLA.

  34. […] Texas Butterfly Ranch reported that a tropical milkweed research patch left overwinter in San Antonio had an occurrence of 15% OE…however, other monitoring sites observed by the Monarch Larva Monitoring Project had 47%! This is 6 times the levels of the monarch population returning from Mexico. […]

  35. Sandy Sweeney
    | Reply

    Both common and swamp milkweed seeds need to be cold treated before planting. I collect fully ripe seed in the fall just before the pod opens on its own. Then lay out damp paper towels and scatter the seed on the towel so that none are touching each other. Roll the damp towel into a sausage and be sure to leave a little tag inside( written in ball point) with the date and variety of milkweed. Make several such rolls until all the seed is wrapped and put the sausages into a plastic bag, then refrigerate for the winter. I have read that 30 days is the minimum. I usually get about 90% germination starting the seed in little peat pots in a tray with clear plastic lid. Remove the lid when the seedlings are touching it. This year I am also trying storing the seed in a container of slightly damp sand, also in the refrigerator. Shake the container from time to time to scratch the seed. Do not let them freeze! Be ready to plant the seeds as soon as you remove them from cold storage. The damp towels may get a little moldy or discolored, but the seeds are usually fine.

    • Kris Thompson
      | Reply

      Thank you for this ingenious and simple method of cold treatment! I’ve been procrastinating my seeds for months since I didn’t want to face the convoluted process of packing each type into separate baggies of moistened potting medium into the fridge.
      This is so much more straightforward and is a wonderful idea.

    • Sandy Sweeney
      | Reply

      So now it is late June. The seeds I stored in the containers of damp sand germinated beautifully after I removed them from the frig. I stored seed of syrica, incarnata, and tuberosa in slightly dampened sand for at least 3 months, some a little longer. Be ready to get the seeds into the ground as soon as they are removed from the refrigerator because they will all sprout right in the container in a big jumbled mess if they stay in there at room temp for a week or so. The paper towel method described before also works fine. The seeds sprout in the towel and you have a risks of breaking root tips as you unroll it. Either way, seeds need a several month period of damp, cold storage (not freezing) in order to germinate in the spring.

    • Karl
      | Reply

      I have had very good luck without cold storage. Last year, I just used starter trays and the seeds germinated in a few days with a very high success rate. Had so many plants, that I had to give many of them away. Began the process in late Jan. and actually had many bloom the first year/late summer

    • Betty Bemis
      | Reply

      Why not let the seed freeze? They freeze outside in nature.

      • Sandy Sweeney
        | Reply

        In the experiment that my students did,we had samples of seed that were not treated at all, some that were kept refrigerator cold for at least 3 months and as long as 5 months and samples that were frozen for the same periods. None of the frozen seeds germinated and few of the untreated seeds germinated. Milkweeds make a lot of seed and we are not knee deep in seedlings outdoors. Conditions on the ground are more varied than our experiment and even freezing air temps may allow for micro climates that don’t quite freeze. Anyway, do more experiments, that is what science is all about.

  36. Ann Weaver
    | Reply

    Informative article, but no definitive answer. As far as common milkweed…although I have lots of seeds each year, I have not had any germinate that I have tried to grow. Instead I transplant them. Once established they send out lots of underground roots which produce new plants. They are invasive so it is a good idea to put them where they can spread without being a problem. I also have swamp milkweed which is native. At times I have supplemented with tropical milkweed in pots, but it is good to make those you purchase are free of herbicides…topical or systemic.

  37. […] down the line that we can’t see right now. To read more about this topic, I greatly recommend this article by Monika Maeckle at the Texas Butterfly Ranch, and this piece (PDF) from the Virginia Native Plant […]

  38. Mary Alice Monroe
    | Reply

    Thank you for another well written, thought provoking article. The question of whether to plant tropical milkweed is difficult indeed. Here in South Carolina we are working with a nursery to raise indigenous milkweed but without success. So rather than have nothing, I will plant some tropical. Like you, I’ll cut it back.

    • Monika Maeckle
      | Reply

      We are pragmatists, in the end. –MM

      • Margaret Hegboum
        | Reply

        I am SO excited to have learned about your site! My sister, who lives in Las Cruces, NM sent me the link. She has been raising monarchs and black swallowtails for a couple of years, with great success. I’m in Dallas, TX and thrilled to hear about the monarch migration highway along I-35, particularly since there has been so much new construction in our area,and consequently, destruction of habitat occupied for many decades by all kinds of wildlife, with little regard for the environmental impact. I have 2acres near downtown where I have used neither chemical pesticides nor fertilizers for nearly 20 years, and you and she have inspired me to turn as much of it as feasible into a place that is welcoming to “the 3 Bs” (birds, butterflies and bees – of course!) Thank you for all the helpful information, and the good work. Keep it coming! Perhaps you will inspire more and more people to get rid of those useless high maintenance lawns and plant nourishing and beautiful flowers for the benefit of nature, and thus for all of us! Their lives, and ultimately ours, depend on it

  39. kit goodwin
    | Reply

    Is anyone familiar with propagation of common milkweed?

    • Annie Britton
      | Reply

      I just stick a cut stalk into a plastic water bottle for my monarchs to chomp on. After it is defoliators, I put it aside and in a very short time the stalks have strong roots. Just put them into a pot of soil and they will grow nicely.

      • Ruth Olmsted
        | Reply

        How do you keep the cats from falling in the water and drowning?
        As to propagation, yes, just clip a stem with about 5 nodes, (maybe 5 inches), pull off all leaves except the top few, put it in a glass of distilled water. change the water weekly, in a month, you will have lots of white roots to plant in soil. I bring in a bunch of these cuttings before the first freeze to make lots of nice plants for the spring migration. cut off the top of the stem first, to have a branched plant.

        • Margaret Furby
          | Reply

          I began raising Monarchs this year. Too keep them from drowning, I copied an idea to take a butter tub, fill with water, punch a hole in the top and stick the milkweed in the hole. No way cats can enter the small hole. The milkweed sends out roots and I pot up in soil. Big box stores spray most of their milkweed with pesticides, which will kill cats up to two weeks after you plant it so I root and plant my own pesticide free milkweed. Thrilled with my new hobby.

          • Ruth Olmsted

            And I am thrilled to have gotten a reply. I hope you enjoy your hobby. I have asked about the yellow aphids and get no response. My bane this year is spider mites. They have taken over my plants, suck the juice out leaving mottled leaves. Does any1 reading this have any suggestions about combating spider mites? Lady bugs will eat monarch eggs, so that is not the answer

        • Barbara Letsom
          | Reply

          About the spider mites – I’ve had them too. Put a little alcohol in the water spray bottle with a few drops of dish soap for the aphids. Cut off and dispose of the mottled leaves and stems and dispose of them.

      • John U.
        | Reply

        Are you sure you’re talking about Common Milkweed or are you referring to Tropical Milkweed? Common Milkweed can only be propagated via either seeds or rhizome sections. I’ve kept Common Milkweed in water and after the leaves are done, it dies and rots. Tropical Milkweed, as well as Swamp Milkweed, will root in water.

        • Kenny McKinney
          | Reply

          I agree. I have had some luck with transplanting green antelope horn. Hard work, but so far worth it. Some of them turn brown and look dead, but if you wait long enough, they will come up from the root. By that I mean over the winter.

        • James G Duquesnel
          | Reply

          Depending on where you live, learn where to go for information about native flora. Most parts of the Americas have several species (often more) of “common” milkweeds, so you may have to learn a little botanical Latin to distinguish them. South Florida has more than a dozen species of suitable native Milkweed species for Monarchs, Queens and Soldier butterflies to host larvae on. A good place to find your list of native candidates is at: (explore the site for links, as Plant Atlas is not just in Florida, but also in Indiana, Alabama, New York, even Jamaica, and (I hope) spreading. Amd plant don’t know state boundaries, so consider these lists regional references. Look up your local herbarium, and ask for a list of native and invasive (to avoid) milkweed species. Native “Milkweeds” and related butterfly-hosts are so common, there really is no reason, or excuse, for using non-native species. After all, what do you suppose our native butterfly larvae chewed on before garden centers started selling the imported milkweed species?!

    • Kenny McKinney
      | Reply

      Yes. I have tried everything. I have had limited success with digging up young milkweed. Look for short plants, and be prepared to go deep. Harvest seeds in the fall, and plant in pots inside. Re set them outside after about six weeks.

  40. Akers
    | Reply

    I live in northern Florida and usually, the non-native milkweed is frozen to the ground each winter.
    The larvae of a tussock moth eats most of the new growth of A. curassavica in my yard each “spring” before Monarchs or Queens have a chance to oviposite. I wonder if this helps keep the spread of Ophryocystis elektroscirrha in check.
    A. humistrata grows along the roadside near my home but when I plant its seeds nothing comes up.

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