Five decorative milkweeds to beautify your yard and help monarchs

It seems a little premature since there is snow on the ground and more in the forecast, but it’s the time of year that I start to think about planting my garden.

One thing I’m really excited to plant in our landscaping are some native pollinator plants. When we moved to our house, it had the typical evergreen bushes, hostas, lilies and tulips. Not that these are bad, but I know there are ways that we can make our yard much more pollinator friendly.

One of the best ways to help pollinators, especially monarch butterflies in particular, is to plant milkweed.

But sometimes, that raises a flag with people who like a manicured lawn.

Milkweed? Yuck. It is tall and grows erratically. I don’t want that in my yard.

Yes, common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) does grow pretty tall, and it does spread willy-nilly. However, there are some other great species of milkweed that are beautiful, calm and still a host plant for monarchs.

Here are a few options of Iowa native milkweed to consider planting in your own landscaping this spring. It’s never too early to start planning!

Butterfly milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa)Photo of orange butterfly milkweed plant

Sometimes also called butterfly weed, this perennial is what we suggest for most people who want to plant milkweed but also want something pretty. It grows 1-2 feet high, has gorgeous orange flowers and blooms June-September.

Butterfly milkweed grows well in full sun, in dry soil.

Plus, a study at Iowa State University in Ames found that butterfly milkweed had the highest survival rates for monarch caterpillars that fed on it. This study showed that monarch caterpillars that fed on butterfly milkweed leaves reached adulthood at a rate of 75 percent, with other species ranging from 30-72 percent.

(Read the entire study in Environmental Entomology.)

Whorled milkweed (Asclepias verticillata)

Photo of whorled milkweed

I’ve seen whorled milkweed growing along a gravel road, because it thrives in full sun in dry fields, prairie, sandy woodlands and roadsides. It’s also a great option for landscaping because it grows 1-2 feet high, has clusters of white flowers and unique spiky leaves in “whorls” or three-six leaves along the stem.

Swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata)

Photo of a moth on swamp milkweed

You might think that your wet landscaping isn’t the right habitat for prairie plants like milkweed, but you’re in luck — swamp milkweed loves wet fields, marshy land and shoreline. It has beautiful pink and magenta blooms with cream-colored centers June-September, and plants grow 1-4 feet tall.

Swamp milkweed has also been found to thrive in heavy clay soil, which is perfect for many Iowa yards.

Showy milkweed (Asclepias speciosa)Photo of showy milkweed blooms

Another great shoreline milkweed option is showy milkweed, because it also likes wet prairie and shores. It will grow 2-3 feet high and has spiky pink blooms that are larger than other milkweed species.

Showy milkweed is native to northwest Iowa but is quite rare, with its typical range more in the western United States.

Poke milkweed (Asclepias exaltata)Photo of poke milkweed

More common in eastern Iowa, poke milkweed is for those with a shadier yard. Most other milkweeds love full sun, but poke milkweed does well in part shade, shade and moist soil.

Poke milkweed will grow 3-5 feet tall and has docile blooms that vary from creamy white to those with green or purple hints. One plant has a few to several clusters of flowers.

Monarchs really seem to love this species, and the Iowa State University study found caterpillars had the second highest chance of reaching adulthood when feeding on it, a survival rate of 72 percent.

Where can I order milkweed?

“Where do I get milkweed plants or seeds?” That’s a common question we get when encouraging people to plant milkweed in their yards. Many large nurseries offer “natives” but they are actually cultivars of native species, so be careful when selecting what you plant. Purchasing from a nursery that specializes in natives and pollinator plants is usually your best bet.

So here are a few places to check out!

The Prairie Flower: Located in Fostoria, just south of the Iowa Great Lakes, this nursery offers native plants and seeds. It’s great for northwest Iowa residents as its offerings are native to the region.

Prairie Moon Nursery: This Winona, MN, nursey offers plants as well as seeds, milkweed and beyond. Make sure to purchase Iowa natives, because some of its offerings are not native to our state.

Ion Exchange: Find a variety of native seeds and plants, from milkweeds to native grasses.

Grow Milkweed Plants: This shop is out of Nevada and has non-Iowa native species, so make sure to only purchase Iowa natives.

Monarch Watch: This University of Kansas program grows native plants for habitat restoration to help people who want to create monarch habitat.

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