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How to Attract Monarch Butterflies to Your Garden: Grow Milkweed

Freshly emerged Monarch Butterfly and chrysalises

Freshly emerged Monarch Butterfly and chrysalises

Growing Milkweed Can Help the Monarch Butterfly

Fortunately for the Monarch butterfly, more and more people are doing what they can to help this wonder of nature survive, and the best way is to plant milkweed (Asclepias species) that the striped caterpillars need to eat.

Many organisations have been set up with this mission in mind, and when searching online using the words "monarch butterfly" + "milkweed seeds," you will soon find websites that, at a very reasonable price, will sell you seeds of the many species of milkweeds that exist. There are a few companies that distribute the seeds free for a SASE.

Most of the milkweeds have pretty flowers and look great in your garden. They're also the only plant the Monarch butterfly caterpillar can eat.

There are species of milkweed such as the Showy Milkweed (A. speciosa) that can grow in the cooler, more northern states, as well as ones that like a warmer temperature like the very popular Tropical or Scarlet Milkweed (A.currassavica). If you don't have a garden or balcony, a roof terrace will work just as well because milkweed will grow well in large flowerpots or even in window boxes.

Most of the species of milkweed are easy to grow and should produce seed pods too, as long as they don't get totally eaten by butterfly caterpillars. The Monarch larvae eat a lot of leaves, so the more plants you grow, the better chance you will have of being able to rear more caterpillars through to the chrysalis stage, from which in a matter of weeks the adult will emerge.

Tropical Milkweed

Tropical Milkweed

Monarch Butterflies Are Threatened in America and They Need Our Help

The Monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus) is surely one of the most beautiful and fascinating insects in the world with its large reddish-orange wings veined in strong black lines, its soaring graceful flight, and its amazing migratory habits.

The Monarch is known to fly incredibly long distances and is one of the only butterfly species that can cross the Atlantic Ocean. This butterfly migrates southwards each year from Canada and the northernmost States and millions overwinter in California and Mexico before starting a return journey in the spring.

Sadly, over the last few years, the numbers of these magnificent insects have dropped rapidly due to the combination of climate change, destruction of their habitat and food plants, as well as the widespread use of pesticides and herbicides. Illegal cutting down of the forests the butterflies overwinter in is another serious threat to their survival. According to CNN, there are at least one million fewer Monarch butterflies that have been overwintering than last year. Recently, many Monarch butterflies were caught in freak wintery conditions that caused them to fall from the trees they were roosting in. Climate change is another serious threat to the ongoing survival of this amazing insect.

Monarch Butterfly Caterpillar and Chrysalis



Chrysalis nearly ready to emerge.

Chrysalis nearly ready to emerge.

Stages in the Lifecycle of the Monarch Butterfly

Monarch chrysalises are a wonder to behold in themselves, being fashioned in pale jade green with a row of bright metallic golden spots. They hang down like little bottles of magic butterfly potion. As the Monarch inside gets ready to complete its metamorphosis, the colours of its wings can be easily seen through the increasingly transparent wing casing area.

Finally, the day arrives, and the butterfly breaks its way out, expands and dries its wings for an hour or so before leaving on its maiden flight. To see your first Monarch go through this amazing transformation is a day you will never forget.

Monarch butterflies live in many other countries besides Canada and America, including Australia and New Zealand, and in Europe they are found as breeding populations in the Canary Islands and Madeira. They are only able to colonise new territory if their food plants grow in the countries they have arrived in. The populations in Madeira, the Azores, and the Canary Islands are dependent on gardeners growing the Tropical Milkweed. They also can use the Balloon Plant (Gomphocarpus physocarpus) and the Swan Plant (G. fruticosus), which have become naturalised in some places and are also grown as ornamental garden plants. Because these plants can be found in some parts of Portugal and mainland Spain, Monarch butterflies have also been able to colonise these countries.

The Monarch butterfly has sometimes been found as a rare migrant to the UK and has even got as far north as Russia and Sweden. Perhaps it is not surprising that it is also known as the Wanderer butterfly? With its travels all over the world and ability to even cross oceans, it is certainly well-named!

Monarch butterflies.

Monarch butterflies.

Monarch Butterfly Poll

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

Questions & Answers

Question: How can my yard be designated as a preserve of Monarchs?

Answer: You need to grow Milkweeds to encourage the butterflies to lay their eggs in your garden. It is best to use species that grow wild in the area you live in, if this is possible. I am not sure where you are but if in North America, there are Milkweed species that grow wild in most of the States. Once the Monarchs have used your garden they should continue coming back. I am in Portugal and last year reared four generations of the butterflies. The females come back because they know I have Milkweed growing here. As long as you grow their food-plant the Monarchs should keep coming. Plant other flowers and flowering shrubs to attract and feed the adults with nectar.

Question: Someone accidentally weed whacked my lush, budding milkweed to the ground today. Is there anything I can do to save it and help it regrow?

Answer: Just leave it and wait and hopefully, it will sprout again if the roots are still undamaged. Was it cut down or sprayed with herbicide? If it was cut it should recover if there was any stem left. If it was subjected to weedkiller it will probably die.

© 2008 Steve Andrews


Sayantani Manna on July 31, 2020:

Hi, do you think there is a way I can find a caterpillar ?

Because I live in a complex were pesticides are used .

I searched in the walking path were its pesticide free

but did not find any :(

a suggestion would be helpful:)

Steve Andrews (author) from Lisbon, Portugal on June 15, 2012:

It is worth trying big or small plants. Just make sure you keep the soil damp until they are well-rooted and growing. Good luck!

Linda on June 14, 2012:

Today is June 14, 2012, and I just tried to plant 2 milkweed plants, someone was nice enough to dig up for me.

One is bigger and had a long root, and the other a baby. Should i waste my time with bigger plants? I read that just the small plants are good for transplanting. I bought a habitat for butterflies so have my cart before my horse. I will be praying for my milkweed plants tonight. Please, tell me what you know! I can handle the truth!

Steve Andrews (author) from Lisbon, Portugal on April 09, 2012:

It doesn't much matter what plants you have apart from Milkweeds which are what is important. Mother butterflies will find them as you have seen. The problem is having enough to feed the army of caterpillars so my advice is grow as many plants as you can. There are plenty of seed firms selling Milkweed seeds very cheaply. Just Google Monarch butterfly + milkweed seeds. I have even seen a couple of sites that send seeds free if you send a SASE. Adults feed from Milkweed flowers and lots of other flowers and shrubs. The food plant is what is vitally important. Good luck!

carmen on April 08, 2012:

Thanks for the post! We recently received a milkweed plant as a gift for our 9 yr old. This has been such a great family experience. The butterfly weed came with a caterpillar and several eggs have hatched since then. I have since hunted down and added to our back yard two additional plants. I was feeding the fish in our fish pond, and looking at caterpillars and a female monarch flew in and laid several eggs right in front of me, it was one of the coolest things I had ever seen! This was a perfect gift for a young kid, and I plan to start giving them as gifts (I've always liked the more educational gifts rather than the traditional "toy")

My question is what is a good plant to buy to attract the monarch butterflies (I live in Houston, TX so something that will survive our heat and droughts) I have also been told that if you have enough butterflies depending on your city you can have your yard sanctioned as a butterfly sanctuary... I can't wait to get to this point:)

Thanks for the post, and thanks in advance for helping me find additional plants to attract this beautiful life.

Steve Andrews (author) from Lisbon, Portugal on June 30, 2011:

I doubt it but I wish it was true!

brandon on June 30, 2011:

Someone told me it was illegal to cut down milkweed plants. is this true?

Steve Andrews (author) from Lisbon, Portugal on June 14, 2011:

Thanks for your comments, Celestial Elf! Yes, they certainly wander well!

celestial elf on June 14, 2011:

Great Post and amazing Pictures, i didn't know that they are also called The Wanderer lol but it figures considering how far they do travel :D

Steve Andrews (author) from Lisbon, Portugal on February 28, 2010:

Thank you for posting, Jule!

Jule Romans from United States on February 27, 2010:

Such wonderful pictures! We had 11 Chrysalides at one time a couple summers ago. Almost all of them eclosed. It was a memorable experience.

livebutterflygar1 on May 30, 2009:

Butterflies also help us understand the interaction of plants with other organisms.Butterfly watching also offers us an escape. Watching butterflies is an opportunity to slow down, breathe deeply and enjoy the beauty of Mother Nature at her best. This is a pretty awesome thing watching caterpillars become chrysalis and then hatch into butterflies.I really enjoyed reading about live butterfly garden on your page.This is interesting stuff to consider buying for the kids.Well done.

Steve Andrews (author) from Lisbon, Portugal on September 08, 2008:

Yes, it's the same plant also known as Scarlet Milkweed, Curacao Milkweed, Mexican Milkweed, Swallow-wort and Bloodflower. Basically any milkweed will do!

The caterpillars get taken by wasps so if you have any and you have cages they are safer in these. I have been rearing them in large empty plastic water bottles cut in the middle for access and taped back together. I put caterpillars and milkweed in and clean them out as necessary and supply fresh food. That way they are safe from natural predators like wasps. The caterpillars pupate on the sides and at the top of the containers.

Kathey on September 08, 2008:

We see a few Monarchs here, and I have found what I call "the jewel cases." They have hatched in an insect cage, and are a wonder to behold. My neighbor and I grow what is called here in North Carolina, Butterfly Weed. I know it is a type of milkweed and looks like what you are calling Tropical. Do you know if it's the same thing? Thanks for all the info on your blog.

Steve Andrews (author) from Lisbon, Portugal on July 09, 2008:

Thanks for posting, Elaine! They are getting rarer here too - we had a lot of very hot weather followed by gales and there have been far less around ever since, coupled with drought the plants they need aren't growing so well and the main problem is that nowhere near enough people grow milkweed anyway!

Elaine Hannah from Tejas, USA on July 08, 2008:

Aww, I love Monarchs. I only realized after reading this how rare it's been to see one (or ANY butterfly, for that matter) recently. I wish I had a space for a garden...I'd definitely plant some milkweed.

Alas, I live in a city apartment...

Steve Andrews (author) from Lisbon, Portugal on June 20, 2008:

Excellent - thank you, Marisue!

marisuewrites from USA on June 20, 2008:

Bard of Ely, I re-read this again to make sure I am doing my part.  I just love these little butterflies and am concerned about the bees disappearing as well.  It's so sad to hurt the process of nature and it's dangerous as well....  Everyone can plant a little milkweed....such a small thing.  thanks again --

I have just built a blog site and will put a link to your article on hub, there, soon. Feel free to go there and blog about butterflies too. ( and thank you for letting me put that link here..) I am just learning more about them, so I dedicated a blog site just to them! =)

Steve Andrews (author) from Lisbon, Portugal on April 07, 2008:

Meanderfly, thanks so much for this great response and article! :)

meanderfly from Ontario, Canada on April 07, 2008:

Dear Bard, I wish I could send you some milkweed. I remember playing in the woods as a child and seeing the pretty flowers of the milkweed and my mother saying I should not pick them because of the sticky white milk - she didn't want me to get sticky. Haha. Kids are attracted to sticky. My point? Yes I do have a point... I live in an urban area now, but there is a gully near here that runs for a good distance and is a naturally ocurring wildlife perserve. I suspect that there is milkweed growing there or I would not be seeing Monarchs at all. Still I will try to plant some in my yard, as I do have many naturalized local plants growing here already. It will fit in nicely - But I wanted to do more, so I wrote an article on my blog that points back to your article. and I also added a new section called "Best Reads on the Web". Your article is the first honored member!

Steve Andrews (author) from Lisbon, Portugal on April 07, 2008:

Thank you too, Violette! :)

Steve Andrews (author) from Lisbon, Portugal on April 07, 2008:

Thank you for your feedback, Meanderfly, and yes, whilst the adults need food their caterpillars do as well and for the female Monarchs this has now become a real job to find any. I read somewhere that in a natural state they are only supposed to lay one or two eggs per plant so there is enough for the larvae to eat, however, with a severe shortage of food plants and hundreds of eggs to lay they end up plastering their eggs all over any they find with disastrous consequences - one or two on a plant may have enough food but 20 will not. I have had to watch this problem here and take steps to get more leaves for the caterpillars. The biggest threat to Monarchs on this island is lack of milkweed!

Violette DeSantis from Broomall, PA on April 06, 2008:

Your hubs are great. Wonderful job with the photos.

meanderfly from Ontario, Canada on April 06, 2008:

What a great article. I love Monarchs and for several years I hadn't seen any at all. That all changed about four years ago when I planted my first Purple Coneflower (Echinecea). The first year it bloomed I saw two, I found that encouraging so I have divided and replanted the Coneflower so now we have 3 clumps and last summer we saw at least a couple of dozen Monarchs. They seem to love "sipping" from the Coneflowers. But obviously I need give them someplace to lay their eggs too. I know what my first plant purchase will be when the greenhouses open up here in the frozen north (Ontario, Canada), a milkweed plant. I'll go adopt one from the woods if I must. Thanks for the great and informative article!

Steve Andrews (author) from Lisbon, Portugal on April 06, 2008:

Thank you very much, Paraglider! Yes, I arrived just the other night and thought I had better make a start so did with something important to me!

Dave McClure from Worcester, UK on April 06, 2008:

Great hub with excellent info & photos.

I see you're new here - so welcome!

Steve Andrews (author) from Lisbon, Portugal on April 05, 2008:

Gerry, there are many species and most grow to couple of feet high although there are some types that can reach 5-6 foot.

Here's a site that provides many types and shows you the wide range of variation.

Steve Andrews (author) from Lisbon, Portugal on April 05, 2008:

Patty, that is a brilliant idea and indeed, the seeds are attached to downy fibres that allow them to get blown in the wind to new locations. To get seeds ready for planting this material is usually thrown away but your idea provides a great potential use for it!

Gerry on April 05, 2008:

Thanks Bard, I have a few Monarchs, but I am going to get some milkweed seeds are either plants, I have plenty of horse manure so that will hopefully fertilize them, is milkweed a running vine or just a short plant?

Patty Inglish MS from USA and Asgardia, the First Space Nation on April 05, 2008:

Somewhere I have a pattern for a "down" jacket to be stuffed with milkweed fibers after they "pop" open. It was published by Mother Earth News quite a while back. People could grow milkweed, attract Monarchs, and use the fibers for jackets, preserving fowl feathers for the fowl.

Steve Andrews (author) from Lisbon, Portugal on April 05, 2008:

I am really pleased to hear it, Marianne! :)

Marianne on April 05, 2008:

Thank you for this wonderful information! Spring has just arrived here in Michigan and guess what I'm going to be planting in my garden this year? :-)

Steve Andrews (author) from Lisbon, Portugal on April 05, 2008:

Thank you for your comments, Patty, Marisue and SweetiePie!

Marisue, very sadly for many a Monarch not only individual trees but whole forests have been destroyed in Mexico! Good luck with your Milkweed growing. I planted some in pots on my balcony and a female butterfly found it and I have had butterflies here ever since. The females are desperately seeking plants to lay their eggs on and because people are killing Milkweed and not growing it as a garden flower they are having more and more trouble finding any. They have hundreds of eggs to lay and nowhere for them to go! Thanks for helping them!

SweetiePie from Southern California, USA on April 04, 2008:

This is a very interesting hub and I have to admit I learned something about monarch butterflies by reading it. The pictures are great!

marisuewrites from USA on April 04, 2008:

great and ejoyable information.  I'm planting some milkweed next week...just because of what you wrote.   I love butterflies and have read that Monarchs have been known to return to the exact tree of their parents...(how they track that I don't know) but when I was teaching, I did a segment on Monarchs and we "hatched" some out in a little box.   What a wonderful experience....  I loved their color and vibrancy.  I didn't remember about the milkweed part so I'm glad you had that in your piece. 

we should do what we can to help balance nature,   to make up for the damage we humas do out of ignorance or whatever.

good read.  Marisue

Patty Inglish MS from USA and Asgardia, the First Space Nation on April 04, 2008:

Thanks for this Hub! I saw only 2 Monarchs last summer, compared to hundreds a couple of decades ago. Haven't seen a grasshopper in 10 years. However, August 2000 was hot enough to produce hundreds of praying mantises on every block of the city. People stood in parking lots at night and just watched them.