Milkweed: Food Fit for Monarchs

Milkweed in Bloom

This is  Narrowleaf Milkweed that grows on my property in San Luis Obispo County, California. It is shown in bloom in July, where it grows in a flower bed beside Dusty Miller in bloom.
This is Narrowleaf Milkweed that grows on my property in San Luis Obispo County, California. It is shown in bloom in July, where it grows in a flower bed beside Dusty Miller in bloom. | Source

Narrowleaf Milkweed Plants in Bloom

Here you see both buds and flowers of the Narrowleaf Milkweed as they were in the middle of July.
Here you see both buds and flowers of the Narrowleaf Milkweed as they were in the middle of July. | Source
Blooming Narrowleaf Milkweed surrounded by wild mustard in the field
Blooming Narrowleaf Milkweed surrounded by wild mustard in the field | Source
Another look at Narrowleaf Milkweed blooming in July.
Another look at Narrowleaf Milkweed blooming in July. | Source
An overview of a Narrowleaf Milkweed plant in July as its buds begin to bloom.
An overview of a Narrowleaf Milkweed plant in July as its buds begin to bloom. | Source
Another overview of Narrowleaf Milkweed blooming in July
Another overview of Narrowleaf Milkweed blooming in July | Source

Narrowleaf Milkweed through the Seasons

Summer is the only season of the year when Narrowleaf Milkweed is lovely to look at. Its long narrow leaves droop below clusters of about 25 delicate white flowers which appear as crowns above small pink petals. You can find the flowering plants from June until September. When you see the plants in this form, you decide they'd make attractive plants to add to your butterfly garden.

Indeed, the monarch caterpillars and the butterflies themselves will appreciate your thoughtfulness in helping to spread the seeds. The monarch butterflies lay their eggs on the undersides of milkweed leaves, one seed only per leaf. When the eggs hatch, the baby caterpillars and their later stage reincarnations will want to eat all the milkweed you've got, since it is their only food. They will even eat the pods until they break open to display the silky seeds.

The long, narrow pods will split in autumn, exposing more seeds than you will want to count. This is when the plant begins to get messy. There are no lovely flowers left, and the silky pods are unkempt. The silk seems to expand until each clump is a silky mass with oval brown seeds floating in it. Then the milkweed bugs appear to eat the seeds, adding a bit of action to the scene.

When the rainy season begins, the silk becomes really messy. You know how your hair looks when it gets wet? Well the milkweed silk strands lose what beauty they have when their fluffiness turns into wet strands. It doesn't bother the milkweed bugs any, because they can still eat the seeds. But that beautiful butterfly garden you had in July is looking pretty sorry now. That's why I recommend that you harvest the seeds before it rains and set aside an out-of-the-way sunny patch of land for a monarch garden. Plant the seeds there and keep it well watered until the plants are established. The monarchs and their offspring will be happy, you can feel good about helping them survive, you can visit your milkweed patch whenever you like, and the rest of your garden won't look messy. Sometime in winter, the stems will die back. You will think the plants have died. But they will be back in spring.


A Monarch Caterpillar on Milkweed Pod

Maybe this monarch caterpillar is eating the pod because the leaves are almost gone. If you click on the photo you will see it full size.
Maybe this monarch caterpillar is eating the pod because the leaves are almost gone. If you click on the photo you will see it full size. | Source
You can see how much this monarch caterpillar has eaten of this pod. If you click on the picture you will see more detail.
You can see how much this monarch caterpillar has eaten of this pod. If you click on the picture you will see more detail. | Source

A Monarch Very Hungry Caterpillar

I came upon this last representative of this generation of this year's monarch caterpillars at the end of October. Maybe he hadn't read that he was supposed to be eating leaves, because he was eating the pod, instead. The pictures show him from two different angles. He looked lonely. I guess I should have caught him and confined him so I could watch him pupate, but I hate to keep creatures in captivity, and when I came the next day with my video camera, he was gone. Birds aren't supposed to like them, but maybe they hadn't read the books or learned the hard way before by eating another one. Or, maybe he had gone for his walk to find a twig on which to pupate. I could not find a chrysalis anywhere nearby either, so I guess I won't get to watch him emerge as a monarch. Maybe I will find him in butterfly form on our eucalyptus tree later in the season.

A Tour Through My Milkweed on October 31

Fall is the Ugly Season for Milkweed

This is what a Narrowleaf Milkweed plant looks like from a distance at the end of October.
This is what a Narrowleaf Milkweed plant looks like from a distance at the end of October. | Source
The milkweed silk with its seeds doesn't look so bad close-up.
The milkweed silk with its seeds doesn't look so bad close-up. | Source
Here are some unopened milkweed pods.
Here are some unopened milkweed pods. | Source
These pods have not opened, either.
These pods have not opened, either. | Source
Each seed is attached to a bit of the slik which will carry it on the wind to plant a new milkweed.
Each seed is attached to a bit of the slik which will carry it on the wind to plant a new milkweed. | Source
The milkweed bug is sucking nutrients through the pod, which will soon be open. He will also get nutrients through the seeds.
The milkweed bug is sucking nutrients through the pod, which will soon be open. He will also get nutrients through the seeds.

Milkweed Gone to Seed

When Narrowleaf Milkweed goes to see, it looks, well, seedy. It begs to be tossed out. But if you love the monarchs, you won't get rid of it. Not yet. Grab those seeds before the milkweed bugs do, and replant it in a sunny spot where you don't see it all the time. If you replant in November, and water until new little plants are established, you will see flowers again in two years. Don't plant in a pot because they are likely not to survive there.

And what about the ugliness of your remaining plants? Once you remove the seedy silk, they won't look so bad. If necessary you can pull the stems or cut them back, since they will die back in winter anyway. In spring the green shoots will reappear and you will have flowers for the bees and butterflies again. Meanwhile, your new out-of-sight patch will be growing to replace these first plants in your garden.

To see the details of the pictures to the right, please click the photos to make them appear full size.

More about Milkweed from Amazon

The Enlarged and Updated Second Edition of Milkweed Monarchs and More: A Field Guide to the Invertebrate Community in the Milkweed Patch
The Enlarged and Updated Second Edition of Milkweed Monarchs and More: A Field Guide to the Invertebrate Community in the Milkweed Patch

The author of this book has been raising, releasing, and teaching both children and adults about monarch butterflies for over 20 years. She partnered with Mike Quinn, a Texas wildlife expert, who helped with classification information and added to her own photos. Many other monarch enthusiasts also contributed photographs of milkweed and the creatures who depend upon it. Even more information has been added in this new edition of the book, which also has larger print to make it easier for children and senior eyes to read.

 
Monarch and Milkweed
Monarch and Milkweed

The target audience for this book is preschool to second grade, but I am sure adults who would like a visual story about the relationship between the monarch and the milkweed and their life cycles would also enjoy the book. If you've got milkweed in your yard, and little ones in your home, it's the perfect book to satisfy their curiosity.

 
Outsidepride Milkweed Common - 50 Seeds
Outsidepride Milkweed Common - 50 Seeds

This is not the same variety that I have, but the flowers look similar. Once you follow the link, you will see seeds available for many of the more colorful varieties, as well. Check to make sure whichever you choose to start your milkweed patch will grow in your area.

 
Butterfly Weed or Orange Milkweed (asclepias Tuberosa) in Nc - 18"W x 14"H - Peel and Stick Wall Decal by Wallmonkeys
Butterfly Weed or Orange Milkweed (asclepias Tuberosa) in Nc - 18"W x 14"H - Peel and Stick Wall Decal by Wallmonkeys

These orange milkweed wall graphics will brighten up any room and require no nails, frames or glue to put into place on your wall. If you change your mind as to where you want them, they are easy to remove and reapply and will not leave a mark on your wall.

 

Milkweed Bugs Close Up

A group of milkweed bug nymphs attacking a milkweed pod.
A group of milkweed bug nymphs attacking a milkweed pod. | Source

Happy Milkweed Bugs at Dinner

This group of milkweed bugs works on both pods and newly exposed silk to find seeds.
This group of milkweed bugs works on both pods and newly exposed silk to find seeds. | Source

Meet the Milkweed Bugs

This is the first year I've met the milkweed bugs on my plants. Maybe this year I had enough milkweed to attract them. They begin to accumulate when the pods appear and break, exposing the seeds. They are true bugs and do not have mouths for biting or chewing food. Instead, they have a tube-like beak which they use to suck nutrients from the milkweed seeds. The adult bugs I have pictures of appear to be the Large Milkweed Bug, as opposed to the the other species, known as the Small Milkweed Bug. This would seem to indicate the nymphs (baby milkweed bugs) are also Large Milkweed Bugs. The nymphs go through five stages of growth, called instars, to become adults. Each stage lasts about a week, and after each one the nymph molts and emerges a bit bigger, until it finally emerges as an adult bug with its wings.

Milkweed Bugs are Always Busy

These milkweed bug nymphs appear to be dining from the milkweed pods.
These milkweed bug nymphs appear to be dining from the milkweed pods. | Source

Milkweed in November, after the Rain

The rain has matted down the silk, but the milkweed bugs are not fair weather friends.
The rain has matted down the silk, but the milkweed bugs are not fair weather friends. | Source
This poor bedraggled plant still has faithful friends, the milkweed bugs who will still come to dinner.
This poor bedraggled plant still has faithful friends, the milkweed bugs who will still come to dinner. | Source

After the Rain

The milkweed is nearing the end of its season. The rain has come. Its days of glory are over, its flowers long gone, and now, after the rain, it looks really sad. The bugs haven't deserted it yet, and won't as long as it still has something left to feed them. Soon, though, even the stems will be gone, to await resurrection in the spring.

I'm Glad You Have Joined Me Here

I hope you now know much more than you did about Narrowleaf Milkweed and the creatures who need it for survival. Please leave me some feedback or any questions you may have, in the comments section below.

Thanks for joining me on this visual journey through my milkweed.

More by this Author


Comments and Questions Go Here 21 comments

Hyphenbird profile image

Hyphenbird 5 years ago from America-Broken But Still Beautiful

WannaB, this was a pleasure to read. I love learning and your knowledge of the milkweed plant is phenomenal. It grows wild here where I live. And your photos are great. Isn't it nice to have nature all around pleasing and teaching us? Thanks so much for this great Hub.


akirchner profile image

akirchner 5 years ago from Central Oregon

Fantastic walk through milkweed again, Barb! Your pictures are simply awesome...even without the butterfly. Is this the one you needed the butterfly for?

Amazing and voted up - I'm learning so many things about plants from your informative, excellently written hubs!


WannaB Writer profile image

WannaB Writer 5 years ago from Templeton, CA Author

Hyphenbirdnature is a great teacher. I did the video and took the pictures before doing any research, and was happy to learn in my research that my observations led me to what the "authorities" had discovered. Thanks for your comment.

Audrey, this is the one I wanted the butterfly for, but it never came. I was hoping that lone caterpillar would be more cooperative. I still have a couple of more plants to write about, but I think I have to go to a hearing this afternoon to help keep the county supervisors accountable to the people. I hate politics.


Peggy W profile image

Peggy W 5 years ago from Houston, Texas

Milkweed used to grow in the fields around our home in Wisconsin when I was a child. The stalks and pods made for great dried weed arrangements! Enjoyed this hub learning about how the monarch butterflies depend upon it as well as the milkweed bugs. Thanks!


WannaB Writer profile image

WannaB Writer 5 years ago from Templeton, CA Author

The Native American tribes use them for making a sort of rope and other things that you can learn about in the link. Thanks for stopping by to comment.


davenmidtown profile image

davenmidtown 5 years ago from Sacramento, California

WBW: What a great hub, not only are the pictures fascinating, the reading is awesome. I have learned something today... What I have always called a milkweed is not at all like what you have pictured. In fact, I have seen this plant before and never paid much attention to it. I will from now on though. I have been looking for monarch caterpillars all summer...


Peggy W profile image

Peggy W 5 years ago from Houston, Texas

An Indian woman who lived near us taught us about many of the native plants. Her basement was always filled with natural collected items and we kids were invited to join in creating many different things. She was wonderful! She has probably passed on now to the next life as that was many years ago, but I will never forget her!


WannaB Writer profile image

WannaB Writer 5 years ago from Templeton, CA Author

davenmidtown, there are many varieties of milkweed I never would have recognized as milkweed. Some have much wider leaves with similar flowers, and others have wider leaves and bright yellow, red, or red/yellow flowers, so maybe you actually saw and correctly identified a different variety of milkweed. When I was looking for the link to the seeds on Amazon, they had pictures of almost all the varieties there. I'm half temped to get some other colors just for the variety if they will grow here. I just hope our weed abatement man leaves my little colony intact. He usually brings the tractor through that way.


WannaB Writer profile image

WannaB Writer 5 years ago from Templeton, CA Author

Wow, Peggy. How fortunate you were to meet her and be able to learn from her. I imagine it was also a great experience for your kids.


prasetio30 profile image

prasetio30 5 years ago from malang-indonesia

I had never know this plant before, maybe because I live far away from USA. But I learn many things from this hub. Thanks for share with us. I love all the marvelous pictures. Rated up!

Prasetio


WannaB Writer profile image

WannaB Writer 5 years ago from Templeton, CA Author

Thanks for stopping by to read and comment, prasetlo. I'm glad you learned something new. I didn't know what this plant was either the first time I saw it and had to ask online friends at Gather to help me. One of them was able to identify it. It's wonderful to have helpful online friends.


Debby Bruck profile image

Debby Bruck 5 years ago

Hello Barb ~ Thank you for taking us for a walk through you garden with all the commentary. A true wild plant. Blessings, Debby


WannaB Writer profile image

WannaB Writer 5 years ago from Templeton, CA Author

Thanks, Debby. I love having company on my walks.


HikeGuy profile image

HikeGuy 5 years ago from Northern California Coast

This is wonderful. I enjoyed all the detail and the pictures of the milkweed in the different seasons. I'm creating a butterfly garden and I'm planning where to put milkweed where it won't invade the landscaped areas. This was helpful.


WannaB Writer profile image

WannaB Writer 5 years ago from Templeton, CA Author

I'm glad you enjoyed it, HikeGuy. I had a lot of fun writing it, since I learned a lot myself. This afternoon I decided to gather some of the seeds and scatter them where I hope new plants will grow, since someone comes through the area where they are growing this year with a plow, and I don't want to lose most of my plants. I seem to be the only weed lover around here -- except for the insects.


moonlake profile image

moonlake 4 years ago from America

Your milkweed is very different from ours. Our milkweed has very wide leaves and the purple flowers. Enjoyed your hub and voted up.


WannaB Writer profile image

WannaB Writer 4 years ago from Templeton, CA Author

moonlake, I noticed that difference when I saw your pictures. I also saw the difference in the field guide when I was trying to see what my milkweed was. Are you finding eggs on your milkweed yet? Or caterpillars?


moonlake profile image

moonlake 4 years ago from America

I saw some caterpillars right after I found the eggs now there are no caterpillars showing up. On my Blue bird and Monarch hub it shows the eggs and caterpillars. I don't know what has happened unless something ate the eggs before they could hatch or ate the small caterpillars. We still have monarchs flying around in the milkweed. I guess our milkweed is called common milkweed.


WannaB Writer profile image

WannaB Writer 4 years ago from Templeton, CA Author

I have a picture I took of some milkweed by a road near my home. The stems are full of orange things, but I assumed they are aphids of some sort. I'll have to look at your pictures.


CarpetDiem profile image

CarpetDiem 2 years ago from Southern California

I see you're in SLO... How did you decide on the type of milkweed you put in? I'm in Santa Barbara, and I see there are 7 different kinds of milkweed native to California. My head is spinning from the options, and I'm wonder what's best for a coastal environment, or if it matters.

PS. Have you ever vistited the Goleta Elwood Monarch Butterfly preserve? It's full of butterflies in Jan and Feb, and is amazing. We were there recently which is what has inspired me to try to grow milkweed.


WannaB Writer profile image

WannaB Writer 2 years ago from Templeton, CA Author

@CarpetDiem I didn't decide. God did it. I had no idea what it was at first and still don't know the exact species. I would say only that it must be native. I hope my photos are good enough so that you can find it in a field guide. I know it's not the edible variety.

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