Best Plants to Attract Monarch Butterflies to the Garden!

Best Plants to Attract Monarch Butterflies to the Garden!

monarch on milkweed

Want to help out the plight of the Monarch? Declining due to habitat loss and pesticide overuse, plus a few other issues, the Monarch butterfly needs our help! Their population has already dropped by 90% over the past decade! We’re beginning to see an uptick in gardeners creating butterfly and pollinator gardens, adding more local native species into landscapes and garden designs, as well as leaving a patch of ‘wild’ habitat in the out-of-the-way locations of our yards!

The biggest two ways the average gardener can help with Monarch butterfly populations is to reduce and use proper timing of pesticides while using more organic pest control methods, and planting Monarch Butterfly Caterpillars' favorite food - Milkweeds!

Monarch Caterpillar Host Plant Favorites!

Monarch Butterflies only lay their eggs on plants in the Asclepias family, so they are a critical resource species in their lifecycle! Without Milkweeds, Monarchs will completely disappear and we don’t want that! 

With several common names - including Butterfly Weed and Butterfly Flower. The seed pods look like horn-shaped green, sometimes spiky looking, and are full of silky strands attached to tear-drop-shaped brown seeds that get carried away by the wind. 

These seeds gave rise to other common names like Silkweed, Silky Swallow-Wort, and Virginia Silkweed. Monarch caterpillars eat these pods and Milkweed bugs do too. These red and black insects eat the Milkweed seeds. Removing these bugs so you have plenty of seeds for spreading next year will help, but isn’t completely necessary if your plant has lots of seedpods. 

Featuring stary-shaped flower clusters comprised of complex five-part flowers, filled with lots of sticky nectar, and milky sap (called latex) in the foliage and stems. This latex is partly why Monarchs choose these plants to lay their eggs on since the sap is toxic to most predators of the plant. Monarch caterpillars eat these plants and then sequester those toxins within their own bodies, called cardenolides/cardiac glycosides, and carry that toxin through metamorphosis into adulthood. 

Birds learn quickly to avoid these insects because of their bad taste and which can make them sick. This has given rise to many ‘mimics’ like the similar-looking Viceroy butterfly and many other copycats trying to trick birds and other predators into not eating them too!

Incredible Perennials That Have It All!

  • Highly adaptable & tolerant
  • Deer and rabbit-resistant
  • Loves Sun
  • Some are Xeric - Others thrive in moist to wet soil
  • Milky sap and fragrant flowers
  • Long-lasting blooms

The Main Types of Milkweed at Nature Hills Nursery

#1 Common Milkweed

common milkweedClassic native Milkweed plants (Asclepias syriaca) have broad, pale-green leaves and big round clusters of star-shaped waxy blossoms and the gold standard Monarch butterfly-attracting host plant they lay eggs on! Highly adaptable herbaceous perennials throughout most of the US in hardiness zones 3 through 9, the native varieties of flowers can range from pink, purplish, and even white. 

They’re sweetly fragrant and the flowers are long-lasting. Low moisture needs and Xeric once established. Check out the Audubon® Native Got Milkweed! These plants can get nearly 5 feet tall and are often a single stem. Plant in pollinator gardens, cottage borders and along sunny swaths to attract these lovely insects.

  • Full Sun
  • Low Moisture Once Established
  • Blooms June - August
  • USDA zones 3-9

#2 Swamp Milkweed

Swamp MilkweedSwamp Milkweeds have narrow leaves and darker flower clusters and love soggy to moist soil. Found around bogs, bodies of water, and marshes. More ornamental varieties include the creamy white blooms of the Milkmaid Swamp Milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) smell like vanilla! Likewise, the dark pink to nearly red blooms of the very adaptable Soulmate Swamp Milkweed!

Plant around Rain Garden, in moist pollinator gardens and water features, ponds, brooks and those soggy out-of-the-way areas in the sun.

  • Full Sun - Milkmaid tolerates partial shade
  • Moist to wet soil, but adaptable
  • Blooms mid-late summer
  • USDA zones 3-8

#3 Whorled Milkweed

Whorled Milkweed

With fine, needle-like slender foliage and smaller clusters of tiny white blossoms and each petite blossom also sport a buttery yellow center. Whorled Milkweeds (Asclepias verticillate) may not look like the above varieties, but they do have the same 5-part flowers and milky sap. The flower clusters are lightly fragrant from the time they bloom in the summer all the way until fall fully sets in. They also feed Monarch caterpillar larvae! Add fine, lacy texture and height to borders, native gardens, and pollinator plantings.

  • Full Sun
  • Most well-drained soils
  • Blooms June-September
  • USDA zones 4-9

#4 Butterfly Weed Plant

Butterfly Weed PlantWith fiery orange and yellow flowers and long, slender dark green foliage, The native Butterfly Weed Plant (Asclepias tuberosa) brings fresh color to the butterfly garden! Again retaining all the other important benefits as an easy-to-care-for and carefree perennial that Monarch butterflies flock to and lay their eggs on. 

Lovely color for your garden and even in cutting gardens, these hot-colored blooms are long-lasting loose, informal clusters and grow to about 2-3 feet in height. Loving the full sun, they end the season with long, slender seed pods. Try mixing the orange and yellow blooms with Hello Yellow Butterfly Weed has unique yellow flowers and the same deep green foliage. These types of Butterfly Weed do very well in low moisture locations once established. 

Cinderella Butterfly Weed (Asclepias incarnata) tolerates moist soil and full sun but with rosy pink and light pink rounded flower clusters. Add to cut flower arrangements and anywhere in the garden for lovely color anywhere in the sun. Plant these around water features and ponds, Rain Gardens, and moist to average garden soils.

  • Full Sun
  • Hardy zones 3-9
  • Blooms in June - August
  • Low moisture once established
  • Cinderella tolerates moist to wet soils

#5 Milkweed Vine

Milkweed VineOddly enough in one garden I had, where there weren’t any Milkweeds, there was one weed that ran rampant and was in the same family that the Monarch butterfly adults used in a pinch - Milkweed vine (Cynanchum laeve) which is a vining perennial native to eastern and central U.S. states and Ontario! Even in gardens where the more tame Milkweed plants grew alongside this volunteer weed, sometimes the Butterflies preferred the vine! You can imagine how mad I was after planting the Monarch in their very one entire ornamental Milkweed garden - and they chose the weeds!

A notoriously noxious vining weed that for some reason was absolutely covered in Monarch caterpillars! So don’t be too quick to tear out some of this weed if it's not in an area of your landscape where it will not interfere with your other plants! Also known as Honeyvine Milkweed, Climbing Milkweed, and Anglepod among many others is a Milkweed species and, therefore a host for Monarch butterfly larvae. This plant forms flowers and pods similar to other Milkweeds, including the milky sap, but is aggressive and invasive when not controlled.

Feed Adult Monarch Butterflies With These Favorites!

Butterflies adore nectar-rich perennials and flowering shrubs! Here are some butterfly and pollinator plants that Monarch and other Butterflies seem especially drawn to! 

  • Iron Butterfly Ironweed
  • Butterfly Bushes (Buddleia) 
  • Sedum
  • Black Eyed-Susan
  • Coreopsis (Tickseed)
  • Perennial Salvia
  • Asters
  • Coneflower
  • Hyssop
  • Annuals such as Zinnia, Aster & Cosmos

Make Your Garden a Monarch Hot-Spot!

how to attract monarch butterflies

Got a garden that frequently has Monarch butterflies? Set up a pollinator watering station with a shallow birdbath or dish with pebbles that are almost covered with water and add slices of fruit like oranges and apples for puddling butterflies and other pollinators to get natural sugars. 

Want to do more for Monarch Butterflies? 

  • If you have lots of Milkweed and Butterfly plants, then you have a Monarch Way Station! 
  • You can also join Monarch counting efforts
  • Join Monarch tagging efforts
  • Use organic pesticide and pest control
  • Plant more Milkweed and Butterfly Weed plants and Nectar resources
  • Avoid GMO and non-native plants and choose local/regional varieties

To attract and host other butterfly species, check out our Garden Blog about other Butterfly Host Plants and the larvae they feed! Then sit back and watch for these tiger-striped flying flowers! Let Nature Hills help you make your landscape better for pollinators!

Happy Planting!

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