How to Get Texas Native Milkweed Seeds to Germinate

Our friends at Native American Seed have been working for years on the best way to get persnickety Texas native milkweed seeds to germinate.   “Native milkweeds simply don’t do well in containers,” said George Cates, seed wrangler at the seed farm and land restoration company in the Hill Country town of Junction.  “They require a very specific set of conditions and have an extremely long tap-root, making containerization untenable.”

Want native Texas milkweed? Start with seeds. Photo courtesy Native American Seed Co.
Want native Texas milkweed? Start with seeds.

So what’s the solution to getting native milkweeds into our landscape?  Start with seeds.
The process has been perfected by Cates, who has germinated thousands of seeds in the last year for Native American Seed‘s customers and the Xerces Society.    Read a report about the project and the status of native Texas milkweed seed production here.   Here’s Cate’s process:

Milkweed Stratification Procedures, Courtesy Native American Seed

NOTE:  Cates insists that sterile rubber (latex) gloves be worn at all times and that containers and implements be sterile.   Otherwise, mold can grow in the vermiculite and damage the seeds.
1. Mix seeds with pre-chilled distilled water and let soak for 24 hours in the fridge.
2.  After 24 hours, pour seeds into strainer and rinse with distilled water.
3. Moisten vermiculite with distilled water, the exact quantity required varies with different media, moist but not dripping is best.
4.  Mix rinsed seeds into vermiculite using your hands, and wear sterile gloves.
5.  Seal container and store in fridge for 30-45 days at 35-45 degrees.  Remove and plant immediately if you see mold.
6.  Plant entire mixture or sift seeds out and plant in prepared seed bed when soil temps are warm (70 degrees+).
7.  Water often until germination occurs.

Antelope horns milkweed, a Monarch butterfly host plant, in bloom. Photos by Native American Seed
Antelope horns milkweed, a Monarch butterfly host plant. Photos by Native American Seed

Soaking and washing the seeds removes natural chemicals that inhibit germination.  When the seeds are moved from the cold darkness of the refrigerator to the bright light and warmth of the sun, they are “shocked” into sprouting.  “The stratification process is meant to mimic nature,” he said, adding that the plants likely developed this dormancy strategy as an answer to drought conditions.
Good luck with your milkweed seeds and let us know how it goes!
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44 Responses

  1. […] monarch and queen butterflies love it as well. [2] Native milkweed is difficult to grow from seed. Here are instructions for […]

  2. Laura
    | Reply

    When should seeds be planted in Austin? It’s so warm already, I’m afraid I already missed my window of opportunity again this year to get them stratified in time for planting in spring. Please advise.

    • Sande in Batavia, IL
      | Reply

      Might try contacting Grace Barnett – she’s listed as the Monarch Outreach Specialist for the regional home office of National Wildlife Federation in Austin. Good luck!

    • Dorlis Grote
      | Reply

      How do I get them to grow in Missouri?
      can i start them indoors or should i wait until warmer weather?

      • Sande in Batavia, I
        | Reply

        I’d recommend starting your seeds indoors. It takes between 4-8 weeks for the plants to be ready for planting outdoors. I live about 40 miles west of Chicago and I’ve planted milkweed from late spring through fall. I’ve found a lot of helpful and interesting information on this site as well as monarchwatch.org, journeynorth.org, monarchlab.org and others.

  3. sara austin
    | Reply

    I belong to a ladies garden club in Blytheville, Arkansas (Ladybug
    Garden) We had a program presented to us this morning at our monthly brunch on the monarch butterfly and it was sooo interesting! He encouraged us to plant milkweed plants – I have no idea how to get started. I believe our club would like this as a project.

    • Dorlis Grote
      | Reply

      I have been collecting seed from milkweeds along my gravel road. Then I scratch the dirt where I want to plant them and drop them on the soil and barely cover them with seed starting mix and cover them with fallen leaves from the oak trees. I do this in early spring or late fall.

  4. debbie
    | Reply

    I live in San Diego. Can I put seeds directly in soil and hope they will grow by watering them almost daily?

    • Julie Shehane
      | Reply

      I’m not sure which milkweeds are native in your area, or which seeds you have, but you can look up your particular variety instructions online. Most milkweed seeds require cold stratification. So you will have to sow seeds in fall, or put them in the fridge before sowing in spring. Monarchwatch.org has an abundance of information on germinating milkweed seeds and planting.

    • Kenny
      | Reply

      Put the seeds in a wet paper towel Put towel in a sandwich bag. Store in a warm place. They will start to grow in the sack. carefully remove them, and plant in good potting soil. Cover with 1/4 in. of soil. Water from the bottom.

  5. wesley webb
    | Reply

    I am trying to find the location of a milkweed source in Collin county texas, it is some where around the Gainsville area. Somewhere I have heard the name Clark Haven, but I cannot find it on any web site

    • NANCY ALCORN
      | Reply

      In Ft. Worth, you can find the Milkweed Plant at Redenta’s and Westin Gardens.

    • Julie Shehane
      | Reply

      It’s usually best to grow your own milkweed from seed. Redentas has some native milkweeds, but they would not guarantee no pesticide usage from their growers. Redentas does not use pesticides once they receive them, but they have told me that they are not sure about their growers.
      Contact native american seed or monarchwatch.org and they will mail you seeds for your region.

  6. Crystal Fisher
    | Reply

    How long does it take for Antelope Horns to bloom from seeds?

  7. Barbi Morell
    | Reply

    I’m in search of milkweed seeds for my daughter who is currently building a new home on five acres in the Texas Hill Country, south of San Antonio. What seeds would do best here and where do I purchase them? Are they all “invasive” species in that you have to plant them with some kind of containment device in order for them not to take over an entire area? Are they like the “running Bamboo”? I had to deal with that a few years and it “wasn’t pretty”… as I loved my quickly expanding grove, until it headed towards my pond!!!! In any event, is there milkweed for the Monarch’s to thrive, that isn’t invasive also. Appreciate all the help I can get! Thank you.
    Barbi Morell

    • Julie Shehane
      | Reply

      Please go to monarchwatch.org and you can order seed packets that will do best in your area. You can also purchase seed mixes from native american seed.

  8. Paul Cherubini
    | Reply

    What I think is really needed are instructions for establishing native milkweeds in wild settings like roadsides. To date, I’m not aware of any “plant milkweed save the monarch” groups that have posted instructions for growing milkweed patches from seed along roadsides or posted photos showing examples of how roadside patches were established via planting seeds.

    • DORLIS GROTE
      | Reply

      Paul, finally! I save seed from my milkweeds and start them in the spring in peat pots. When it is warm enough, I plant them along my gravel road, fairly close to my house so I can keep an eye on them. Of course, keep them beyond the road easement, maybe put up a bright painted stick next to them. Road crews tend to cut everything green and do not always cut just the easement. Here, they are told to cut as far as they can (if a tree does not stop you) so it helps to talk ni8cely to the county road department. That is our biggest hurdle, getting them to understand why they should not cut everything. I finally resorted to parking my car across the road. The sheriff was called out and then county commissioners to determine that YES, they were cutting private property and had to stop. Now, they have to pay attention to what they are doing.

  9. Dorothy Head
    | Reply

    Last ? Summer our blooming trumpet vines were a stop for hundreds of Monarchs possibly on their migration route. It was a beautiful sight to behold! They stayed for maybe 2 or 3 days and then were suddenly gone. This was was the first time this has happened in our yard, we’re hoping it will happen again this year. Would they have been just resting or feeding or both.

  10. Liz
    | Reply

    Finding vermiculite is a bit of a challenge for me, but I do have perlite. Would you recommend trying perlite instead?

  11. Jan
    | Reply

    We wish to plant an appropriate species or variety of milkweed for Monarch butterflies here in NW Louisiana. What do you suggest, and do you have that species or variety?

    • Monika Maeckle
      | Reply

      You should check with your local ag extension or Master Gardeners. It’s probably Asclepias syriaca or ASclepias incarnata, but double check. Good luck!

      • Jan
        | Reply

        Thank you, Monika.

    • Ridlon Kiphart
      | Reply

      Check at Almost Eden Nursery in your neck of the woods. http://almostedenplants.com/
      They have native milkweed for your area.

  12. DORLIS GROTE
    | Reply

    DRAT IT, MILKWEED BEETLES GOT 3 OF MY PODS, NOT ONE SEED IN THEM. GUESS I WILL HAVE TO TIE THEM UP IN NYLON STOCKINGS NEXT YEAR TO KEEP THEM OUT. THERE HAVE BEEN MOER OF THEM THIS YEAR AND THEY SEEM TO ATTACK ONE POD AT A TIME AND THEN MOVE ON TO THE NEXT ONE. AT LEAST THE RAIN TODAY KNOCKED MOST OF THEM OFF.

  13. DORLIS GROTE
    | Reply

    i AM COLLECTING SEEDS OF A DARK RED MILKWEED FROM MY PLANTS NOW. I HAVE ABOUT 12 SEED PODS. I AM BREAKING THE SEEDS AWAY FROM THEIR PARACHUTES AND STORING THEM IN PLASTIC PILL BOTTLES. AM I ON THE RIGHT TRACK? SHOULD I REFRIGERATE THEM UNTIL SPRING (FEBRUARY OR SO) AND THEN PLANT THEM?
    i AM ALSO SHARING WITH FRIENDS AND WANT TO GIVE THE THE RIGHT PLANTING ADVICE FOR MISSOURI.

  14. Jen T.
    | Reply

    So, for Texas, is it best to plant these in the spring? Thank you.

  15. Susan Salzman
    | Reply

    How long are the taproots? I just read that they are long, but never how long. I would guess the length varies a bit between the types.

    • Steve
      | Reply

      I read up to 2 meters in length.

  16. Misti
    | Reply

    What’s the expiration on old seeds? I have some that are a couple of years old to 5+ years old that are in my seed stash. Would love to try them but if they won’t work, I need to throw them out.

    • Monika Maeckle
      | Reply

      Seeds can last decades. It depends on how they’re stored.

  17. Blake
    | Reply

    Mr. Cates, thank you for your efforts to help the monarchs and for promoting native plants. I plant Pennsylvania native milkweeds using seed balls and fall plant them with good success. I think the our Common milkweed in germinates a little easier than your species, though. Germination rates among Asclepias seems quite variable. It is great that you developed such a sure fire method for yours, and that you shared it online!

  18. Jeannie Chapman
    | Reply

    I have just received 64 little 3-4″ tall Milkweeds to plant throughout my yard and big new flowerbed…I got anxious and did not do this in the Spring..I heard we are to have a hard winter … would you greenhouse these babies or go on and set them out…I just got so excited I ordered. They did not tell me the variety but said they would send per my area…thank you.

  19. Dorothy
    | Reply

    Thanks for what you are doing. I hope to try this if I can get the seeds. I’d like to try to find some of the native seeds for this.

  20. mattie
    | Reply

    What months are best for germinating and planting milkweed in the Trans Pecos Area?

  21. Sandi H
    | Reply

    You do not indicate the depth in which to plant the seeds.

    • Monika Maeckle
      | Reply

      Probably about an inch or less, Caitlin.

      • John U.
        | Reply

        Usually 1/4 inch or you can set the seeds on the surface of your growing medium and then lightly sprinkle some growing medium ( I use seedling starting mix). I use a seedling heat mat underneath the flat of seeds and I place a plastic dome over the flat to keep it humid. I’ve had seeds start to germinate in as little as three to four days.

        • Sande
          | Reply

          I recently tried this method-(with lights) and I couldn’t be happier with the results. I am very impressed by the difference the heat mat makes. The seedling hear mat has significantly shortened germination time and improved seed germination to about 90%… woohoo! My $20 investment (Home Depot online) has been a huge success. I’m excited to have the opportunity to echo John’s praise of the seedling heat mat.
          Sande
          Batavia, IL

          • Sandra
            |

            Please tell me the exact steps to get seeds to germinate with heat mat. Thank you. Do you not use the refrig at all? Confused.

          • Sande in Batavia, IL
            |

            I hope my reply will be helpful to Sandra… I live in northern IL where winter temps are frequently below freezing and I keep my seeds inside a brown paper bag in my garage. I planted some of those seeds today and before planting, I gently, but not too carefully, rubbed them across an emery board. When I buy milkweed seed packets, I plant the seeds directly from the package. I follow the steps in John U.’s comment that’s posted above.

          • Doug Hillary
            |

            Hi, can you clarify something for me ? I’m new to this and trying to figure out the best way to germinate my milkweed seeds. It seems like the heat map is successful. Would I use that after completing the cold stratification procedure to get sprouts and then plant the sprouts ? Thanks in advance for your reply !

          • Sande
            |

            Hi Doug, yes, the heat mat is used to germinate your seeds- the heat jump starts the process. Once the seeds have sprouted, you’ll remove the heat mat- it’s no longer necessary and you don’t want to burn the tender MW roots.
            The Monarch Butterfly Garden site has further info & photos about using a heat mat. https://monarchbutterflygarden.net/starting-seeds-indoors-tropical-milkweed/

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