Does it seem to you that all of a sudden, people across North America are talking about milkweed? 

At the time of this writing, stories on milkweed abound, from the Houston Chronicle to News4Jax TV news in Jacksonville, Florida; Madison, Wisconsin’s 608 Today; and Columbia, South Carolina’s The State. reposted an older article about monarch butterflies and milkweed under the title “Long Live the Queen.”

In my Facebook feed, a contact in Moscow, Idaho, asked her friends what type of milkweed she should plant.

In Michigan, a law was passed upholding a ban on a long list of noxious weeds—and providing special protection for the planting of milkweed.

Then my mother brought it up on a FaceTime call, and I knew it was time to write about it.

My mom, in her 70s, maintains a public garden in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. It has taken her years: she cleared the land, planned beds, planted flowers and vegetables, built walkways, got the water fountain working for birds. Though she had a long career in the justice system, this is what she does now. She loves building and sharing a public space for kids and dogs and food and wildlife.

I told her about a monarch butterfly article I was writing, and she said, suddenly animated,

“Everybody’s talking about milkweed! What kind do I plant? Where do I get it? And will the caterpillars eat everything else, too?”

Fair questions, so let’s get to the answers for her—and for you, too.

Monarch butterfly chrysalis hanging from a milkweed plant

Monarch butterfly chrysalis hanging from a milkweed plant

Monarch Butterflies—Some Basic Facts

In order to understand all the recent talk about milkweed, it helps to know the basics about monarch butterflies. 

The eastern monarch butterfly, known scientifically as Danaus plexippus, exhibits one of the most remarkable migratory patterns in the animal kingdom. Each year, the butterflies embark on a journey that can cover 3,000 miles, from the northeastern United States and southeastern Canada to the central mountains of Mexico. Mexican oyamel fir forests provide a unique microclimate that is essential for the butterflies’ survival over winter.

As I write, the eastern population of monarchs is making its way north in the U.S. (The western population is on the move in California.) This migration is all the more astounding because an average adult monarch butterfly weighs about half a gram or 0.018 ounces and lives between 2 and 6 weeks.

Monarchs that arrive in Texas in February have usually overwintered in Mexico. Offspring of these monarchs move further north. Two generations do not migrate. As a result, monarchs that travel south in the late summer to Mexico have never been there before.

Monarchs are able to overwinter in Mexico because the last generation of the year goes into what is called reproductive diapause, which means they cannot reproduce. When spring arrives, they mature and reproduce, starting the new first generation that makes their way north. These monarchs can live much longer because they do not use energy to reproduce, and cooler temperatures slow their metabolism.

Conservation efforts have become increasingly important to protect the monarchs’ migratory routes and overwintering habitats. The Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve, established by the Mexican Government in 1986, is a critical sanctuary for these butterflies. Despite the challenges they face, the eastern monarchs’ migration remains one of nature’s most extraordinary phenomena, a testament to the resilience and complexity of these delicate creatures.

Monarch caterpillar on orange milkweed

Monarch caterpillar on milkweed

Monarch Butterflies Need Milkweed

The monarch butterfly’s existence is intricately tied to the milkweed plant. Milkweed serves as the sole host for monarch larvae, providing the essential nutrients needed for them to grow and metamorphose into the iconic butterflies we recognize.

Without milkweed, monarchs cannot complete their life cycle, leading to a decline in their population. This decline has been so significant that the migratory monarch butterfly has been classified as Endangered on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, signaling a high risk of extinction in the wild.

According to World Wildlife Fund, the eastern migratory monarch population shrunk by more than 80% in the last three decades. Their dramatic decline can be attributed to:

  • degradation and loss of breeding and migratory habitat
  • climate change and increases in severe weather
  • use of pesticides and herbicides, insecticides and fungicides
  • aggressive management of roadside vegetation
  • development
  • unsustainable landscaping practices
  • logging and loss of grasslands and croplands. 

Most of these deplete the supply of milkweed. Milkweed depletion is likely the most catastrophic among the threats facing monarch butterflies.

As a result, one of the easiest ways to conserve monarchs is by planting milkweed. Milkweeds are resilient plants and can grow almost anywhere—from roadside ditches and prairies to woodlands and marshes. There are several dozen species native to North America, so no matter where you live, there is at least one milkweed species native to your area.

monarch butterfly on orange milkweed flower

Choosing the Right Milkweed for Your Area

According to Nat Hab’s Court Whelan, we need 1.8 billion more stalks of milkweed to start seeing monarch numbers rebound. So, let’s get planting!

Several native milkweed species are particularly beneficial for monarch butterflies and can be incorporated into your garden:

  • Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) is widespread and known for its large balls of pink or purplish flowers, thriving in a range of environments across many states.
  • Butterfly Weed (Asclepias tuberosa), with its vibrant orange flowers, is drought-tolerant and attracts a variety of pollinators in addition to monarchs.
  • Swamp Milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) is another excellent choice, especially for wetter areaswith its beautiful rose-purple flowers.
  • Antelope Horn Milkweed (Asclepias asperula) is a clump-forming plant with unique white and purple flowers, suitable for drier regions.

These species not only provide critical resources for monarch caterpillars but also add beauty and diversity to your garden, supporting a healthy ecosystem.

MonarchWatch a citizen-science project based at the University of Kansas Biological Survey, contends that when planning the restoration of large areas, it is important to plant milkweeds native to your region; it’s not as crucial in a backyard or schoolyard garden, though. Keep in mind that native plants typically require less maintenance and offer greater benefits to local wildlife.

Butterfly on top of milkweed plant

© WWF-US / Clay Bolt

For four large U.S. regions, MonarchWatch recommends milkweed preferred by monarchs and relatively easy to establish in gardens and fields:

  • Northeast Region—common milkweed, swamp milkweed, butterfly milkweed, poke milkweed
  • South Central Region—antelope horn milkweed, green antelope horn milkweed, zizotes milkweed
  • Southeast Region—aquatic milkweed, white milkweed, butterfly milkweed
  • West Region—showy milkweed, antelope horn milkweed (only in NV, AZ, NM, CO, ID, KS and OK)

Visit WWF’s milkweed finder for a slightly more detailed list to find the right milkweed for your area.

For more detailed information, MonarchWatch offers resources to identify and source seeds and plugs for monarch habitat restoration in different regions.

Monarch Butterfly by Jessica Morgan

Photographed by Nat Hab Expedition Leader © Jessica Morgan

Creating a Year-Round Monarch Haven

It’s not just milkweed that monarchs need to survive. Once they’re butterflies, adult monarchs need a steady supply of nectar to fuel their long-distance migration. By planting a variety of nectar-producing flowers that bloom at different times, you can provide a continuous food source for adult monarchs throughout the year.

Include species that bloom at different times, ensuring that no matter when monarchs arrive, they will find sustenance:

  • Early blooming spring flowers such as lilacs and phlox can provide nectar in the spring.
  • Summer flowers like echinacea and black-eyed Susan offer rich sources during the warmer months. 
  • As autumn approaches, asters and goldenrods can sustain the butterflies until they continue their migration or go into hibernation.

In addition to providing food, a monarch haven should also offer shelter from predators and harsh weather conditions. Shrubs and trees can serve as protective cover and roosting spots for butterflies.

Avoiding pesticides is crucial, as these chemicals can be harmful to monarchs and other pollinators. 

Water sources, such as shallow dishes with pebbles or a small fountain, can also be beneficial. These allow monarchs to hydrate without the risk of drowning, which is a hazard in deeper water. 

By creating a habitat that caters to the needs of monarchs throughout the year, individuals can play a vital role in their survival and the health of the species. Such efforts also enrich the biodiversity of your area, inviting a variety of pollinators and contributing to the overall health of the ecosystem.

A monarch-friendly garden does not require extra attention or extraordinary care. General mulching, thinning, fertilizing, amending the soil, removing dead stalks, watering and eliminating insecticide use will maintain your butterfly garden.

monarch butterfly wildlife guide mexico

Nat Hab Expedition Leader, Kingdom of the Monarchs trip © Court Whelan

Support Endangered Monarch Butterflies

Planting milkweed and nectar-producing flowers is more than a gardening choice—it’s a commitment to biodiversity and ecological health. By participating in monarch butterfly conservation efforts, you can make a tangible impact on the monarch population and contribute to a larger movement toward environmental stewardship.

Supporting endangered monarch butterflies is crucial for the preservation of biodiversity and the health of ecosystems. Here are several ways individuals and communities can contribute to this cause:

  • Educate friends and family (especially kids) on the importance of habitat creation and butterfly gardens. Check out WWF’s Teaching Toolkit for Monarchs and Nat Hab’s Monarch butterfly videos and webinars.
  • Visit the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve in Mexico to learn about these creatures’ incredible migration and the conservation efforts in place to protect them. Nat Hab’s Kingdom of the Monarchs classic, photo, and women-only itineraries lead guests into the heart of the monarch’s overwintering area in Mexico’s Central Highlands. Witness this phenomenon with expert interpretation from premier naturalist guides.
  • Participate in citizen science projects, such as tagging monarch butterflies, which helps researchers track their migration patterns and population health. JourneyNorth, based out of the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Arboretum, tracks monarch butterfly migration and milkweed phenology across North America through volunteer citizen scientist observations. Submit your sightings here!
  • Advocate for policies that protect pollinator habitats from threats like deforestation, pesticides and climate change by writing to local representatives or supporting conservation organizations.
  • Create or contribute to local community gardens that focus on pollinator-friendly plants, ensuring that monarchs have a safe haven during their migration.

By taking these steps, we can make a significant impact on the survival of the monarch butterfly and the preservation of our natural world for future generations. Each action, no matter how small, adds up to a collective effort that can lead to substantial change.

Kingdom of monarchs the great butterfly migration Mexico

© Court Whelan