Good news – milkweed is no longer on the Illinois Noxious Weeds List!
When I started growing common milkweed five or so years ago it was still on the list and people were not nice when I offered them free milkweed seeds. True, it is a sticky mess and would not be good to ingest or get in your eyes. A few National Geographic specials on the vanishing Monarch made my quest to give away free common milkweed seed a little easier. I would say, “Would you like some free milkweed seed?” And the person would say, “No.” Then I would say, “Did you know that it is the only plant that the Monarch butterfly will lay eggs on and the only plant that the larva will eat?” Suddenly, I had takers all around.
I need to give credit to Pat Miller for getting me started. She provided me with the first seed to give away and the seeds that were first planted in our vegetable/flower garden.
The other reason I wanted to grow milkweed was so I could raise monarchs to release. I needed milkweed so I could find the eggs and newly hatched larva to raise in a controlled environment as only one in ten eggs makes it to a butterfly in nature. I also need plenty of clean, unsprayed milkweed for feeding. I take the leaf off the plant that has the egg or the larva and use a floral tube to keep the leaf from drying out too fast. This is where things can get sticky! I need to move quickly as the stem of the leaf will seal from the “milk” and the leaf will dry out before the larva emerges. And try not to let the leaf drip on your clothes.
I have learned over a few seasons that less is more when it comes to milkweed. I love the aroma of common milkweed blooms and I do let some plants go to seed so that I have more to give out the following year. However, I take out some older plants and let new ones emerge as monarchs like young tender leaves for their eggs. In addition, I don’t want the milkweed over crowded and I don’t want “wilt” on the milkweed leaves or on any of my tomatoes, cucumbers, etc.
Milkweed doesn’t always cooperate by growing where I want it to grow, but I do try to keep it as a tall background plant for other natives like coneflower. We ring our vegetable garden with natives and it works out very well with the birds preferring the natives to the fruits of the plants we eat!
Growing milkweed and raising monarchs is a labor of love, but well worth the effort.
Judith Allyn Horsley has been a certified Master Naturalist since 2012. She began distributing milkweed seeds in 2013 and has distributed over 2500 packets of common milkweed seed. She is a member of West Chicago’s America in Bloom committee, has taught monarch conservation at park district summer camps and is active with the Environmental Stewardship Committee at her church.