Sunday, April 15, 2018

Milkweeds in Georgia

For several years now we’ve heard how monarch butterfly populations are plummeting (as measured in their winter locations). There may not be a single cause, but there has been a decline in milkweed populations in the US and milkweed (Asclepias spp.) is the plant on which female monarch butterflies lay their eggs. Gardeners and communities have responded to their plight by planting more milkweed in their gardens and in places where wildflowers are allowed to grow (e.g., roadsides, interstate rest stops).

Roadside monarch butterfly on Asclepias tuberosa

Native plant sales had a hard time keeping up with the demand initially, but milkweed is generally available now at spring sales. Milkweeds are not the earliest plants to emerge in the spring, however, so it can still be a challenge for the early April sales to provide plants that people want to buy. Chattahoochee Nature Center (CNC) in Roswell – which is not far from me – has particularly risen to the challenge and has propagated over 50,000 milkweed plants over the last four years. Director of Horticulture Henning von Schmeling (and the center’s very talented propagator) shared some details on what they’re growing.

CNC’s large-scale production currently is focused on Asclepias tuberosa (three varieties), Asclepias incarnata (2 subspecies), and a good amount of Asclepias amplexicaulis. Species they are growing for seed production or small-scale restoration include: Asclepias verticillata, variegata, exaltata, quadrifolia, hirtella, purpurascens, rubra, viridis, michauxii, obovata, viridiflora, longifolia, lanceolata, perennis, connivens, and humistrata. They hope to collect seeds this year from Asclepias cinera, tomentosa, and pedicillata if they can find viable Georgia populations.

Where have those 50,000 plants gone? Many were planted at the Nature Center itself or sold in their plant sales. Thousands of plants went to several seed production plots in the state. Many were used for projects or for sales through other groups: 2 large beautification projects along The Ray near LaGrange (Henning says the pollinator meadow installed at the visitor center coming into GA on 85 was gorgeous last fall; there were at least 12 species of butterflies there on one visit); Atlanta Botanical Garden; State Botanical Garden; a private restoration company; GADNR non-game, Georgia Plant Conservation Alliance; Georgia Native Plant Society; Monarchs Across Georgia; Captain Planet Foundation; Keep Cobb Beautiful; Easter Plantation; Chattahoochee River NRA; and The Nature Conservancy.

If your head is swimming with all those milkweed possibilities, a new publication is available for people to better understand which of the many species of milkweed are appropriate not just for Georgia but for your area of Georgia. The publication is called Monarch Butterflies & Georgia’s Gardens, and it is available on the State Botanical Garden’s website. The brochure was created with the knowledge and efforts of the best milkweed experts in Georgia, and it is now the premier source of information that anyone in Georgia should consider. Here is a summary of the species mentioned.

The fab four: these four milkweed species grow in nearly every region and can be used throughout the state: orange milkweed, commonly called butterfly weed: Asclepias tuberosa; white milkweed, or red-ring milkweed: Asclepias variegata; whorled milkweed: Asclepias verticillata; and clasping milkweed: Asclepias amplexicaulis.

Asclepias verticillata
Asclepias variegata

The terrific trio for North Georgia: an additional 3 milkweed species are good for North Georgia landscapes: swamp milkweed: Asclepias incarnata var. pulchra (which may be sold as Asclepias incarnata); mountain milkweed, also called poke milkweed: Asclepias exaltata; and four-leaf milkweed: Asclepias quadrifolia.

Asclepias incarnata var. pulchra
Asclepias quadrifolia

Monarch lays eggs on
Asclepias exaltata in my garden

The brochure also includes a list of native milkweed species by ecoregions, a list of rare/threatened/endangered milkweeds in Georgia, and it answers the question of whether using two milkweed species not found in Georgia is ok (spoiler alert: it’s not ok).

It provides a list of places to buy milkweed in Georgia as well. It’s really a very well-done effort to educate Georgians about milkweed and helping monarch butterflies.

The monarch butterfly is but one example of the special relationship between insects and native plants. I hope that those who are inspired to help monarch butterflies will be further inspired to help other butterflies as well by researching and planting their host plants.


  1. Very informative read, thank you!

  2. Oh no, I guess I will have to cut down my common milkweed. I was so thrilled to see it spreading so well!