Asclepias or milkweeds, can be finicky plants to start from seed and get established in your garden, but don’t let them intimidate you. These plants will attract butterflies by providing both native nectar sources and host plants for eggs and caterpillars. Few garden centers sell them. Butterfly weed seeds can be purchased from garden centers specializing in native plants: www.americanmeadows.com is one. The milkweed seeds I have used I have simply collected myself from local fields. I believe it to be common milkweed.
Here are some tips to help you get those seeds started.
The method I use has worked two years in a row now. The plants of both butterfly weed, with its lovely orange flower, and milkweed, with its milky secretions and large seedpods full of silky fluff, have become well established and have already come up in my gardens yet again this year. I am not sure where I originally read about propagating milkweed seeds, but here is one link that describes it well – http://butterflysocietyofva.org/growing_milkweed.htm .
Sow your seeds in a flat filled with moist soil. Mixing some sand in will make the butterfly weed happy once it starts growing. Cover the flat with a black garbage bag or other heavy bag that will prevent light from getting in. Give the seeds a cool, dormant period by placing the entire package into the refrigerator for 4-6 weeks. Mark your calendar so you don’t forget! Last year my kids and I prepared our flats and put our seeds in the fridge as our Earth Day activity. This year we started them even earlier, although there is still plenty of time to get plants going for this summer.
After the appropriate period of time has passed, remove the flat and place it in an area that will stay consistently warm. The seeds should germinate pretty quickly. I placed mine directly out in the sun on the porch yesterday, as it was 81 degrees! If it cools off I bring them inside or put them into our hoop houses. Water as needed to keep the soil moist but not soaking wet. Transplant them after the plants are looking strong and are well established, being particularly careful not to disturb the roots too much. Once they are established in your garden I have heard that they don’t like to be moved, yet one of the plants I moved last year took very happily to its new location and has spread remarkably this year. I was very careful to get a large shovel full of soil all around the root ball when I dug it up and gave it plenty of water as it settled into its new location.
Most species of butterflies and moths require particular host plants. The monarch butterfly requires milkweed to feed on in the larval stage. Predators are deterred by the toxicity given to it by the milkweed. It carries this toxicity into the butterfly stage of its life. The viceroy butterfly has evolved to mimic the monarch. This also protects it from predators.
Once you begin to learn about host plants, you can attract a wide variety of butterflies and moths to your gardens. WV DNR has put together a nice brochure with a sample garden plan and plants listed by what species of butterflies they attract. You can also visit their website here: http://www.wvdnr.gov/Wildlife/ButterflyGarden.shtm
The WV DNR website describes “puddling”. Some butterflies, particularly males, prefer to land on moist, mineral rich areas seeking nutrients not found in nectar. I learned from a master gardener in my area of an activity to do with my kids in the garden. I love to include my kids in my gardening activities and one more way to do this is to allow them to create the puddles! Let your kids make a good, old-fashioned mud pie by mixing sand, soil, water and a pinch of salt into a saucer for a pot, an upside down Frisbee, one of those old saucer sleds – or anything similar that you can think of or have on hand! Add a rock to the middle of it for the butterflies to sun on, keep it moist and enjoy the creatures it attracts!
Which finicky wildflowers have you successfully raised in your beds? I have some bluebell seeds I am thinking of trying this year and would appreciate any tips you might have for me!