Monarchs and Milkweed

The Monarch butterfly is in peril

Throughout Florida and the United States, habitat loss, the wide use of herbicides and genetically modified crops, and frequent roadside mowing have decreased milkweeds (Asclepias species), the Monarch’s host plant. As a result, the number of Monarch butterflies (Danaus plexippus) has plunged alarmingly.

Our love and concern for Monarchs has increased interest in milkweed. But one readily available non-native milkweed species appears to be doing harm.

Monarch caterpillar on Pink swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) by Peg Urban

How you can help

You can support Monarch butterflies by planting Florida’s native milkweeds and advocating for reduced mowing on roadsides. Twenty-one Florida native milkweed species are native to Florida. The three native species featured below are available at Florida native nurseries.

Why plant native?

Florida’s native plants have evolved here over thousands of years. They have symbiotic relationships with the plants and wildlife around them, and have adapted to Florida’s unique climate, pests and soils. When the right plant is used in the right place in planned landscapes, they typically don’t need fertilizer, insecticides and additional water once established.

close-up of orange butterfly milkweed flowers
Photo by Mary Keim

Butterflyweed (Asclepias tuberosa) is the most widely recognized native milkweed. Its showy clusters of bright reddish-orange flowers bloom late spring through fall. This native wildflower grows 12 to 15 inches high in a bushy form and has coarse lance- or oval-shaped leaves. Because it grows naturally in sandy habitats, it adapts well to dry landscapes.

close-up of pink swamp milkweed flowers
Photo by Mary Keim

Pink swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) is found in moderate to moist sunny habitats, where it grows 2 to 4 feet tall. It blooms in summer with very showy light pink- to rose-colored flower clusters. Its fleshy linear leaves grow up to 6 inches.

close-up of white swamp milkweed flowers
Photo by Peg Urban

White swamp milkweed (Asclepias perennis) is a shorter bushy plant growing to about 2 feet. Summer flowerheads are small with white to light-pink flowers. Bright green leaves are lance-shaped. It prefers moist to wet soil conditions and can adapt to shady locations.

Pipevine swallowtail on Butterflyweed, Asclepias tuberosa

DID YOU KNOW?

Queen and Soldier butterflies also use native milkweeds as host plants for their caterpillars, and Pipevine, Spicebush and Eastern swallowtails rely on them for nectar. Many other butterflies and bees — including native sweat bees, leafcutter bees and yellow-faced bees — need milkweed’s pollen and nectar.

Pictured: Pipevine swallowtail on Butterflyweed (Asclepias tuberosa) by Mary Keim

Nectar for Monarchs

Plant these natives along with milkweed to provide nectar to Monarchs:

Monarch on Climbing aster, Symphyotrichum carolinianum
Monarch on Climbing aster (Symphyotrichum carolinianum) by Andrea England

Why aren’t native milkweed plants widely available?

Although they are robust in Florida’s natural habitats, native milkweeds can be difficult to propagate. Because they are a larval food source, butterfly larvae may devour milkweed foliage before the plants can be brought to market.

What we are doing

The Florida Wildflower Foundation, along with partners such as the Florida Museum of Natural History and Florida Association of Native Nurseries, is working to increase native milkweed production by supporting the sustainable collection of seeds from wild populations and the testing of propagation methods in order to develop and share best practices.

Where to purchase native milkweed plants

Act responsibly

Digging up wild milkweed and collecting seed can reduce its ability to reproduce.

  • Do not attempt to dig up wild plants.
  • Do not collect wild seed unless you first have permission from the landowner.
  • If you have permission to harvest, take no more than 10 percent of the available seed.

How Tropical milkweed can harm Monarchs

Tropical milkweed (Asclepias curassavica) is native to Mexico and Central America. It is widely available at Florida’s mainstream nurseries and big-box stores because it is easy to grow. However, Tropical milkweed can potentially harm Monarchs.

Harm from Insecticides. Commercially grown Tropical milkweed plants are sometimes treated with systemic insecticides to keep pests off of them, giving them a better appearance at retail nurseries. However, the chemicals can harm Monarch caterpillars that feed on their leaves.

Harm from parasites. Tropical milkweed has been linked to the transmission of Ophryocystis elektroscirrha (OE), a protozoan parasite. When OE spores infect milkweed leaves, they can be carried on the bodies of adult butterflies, spreading the infection. Microscopic spores on the bodies of infected caterpillars are spread to eggs, and infected larvae may not emerge from pupal stage or may emerge as very weak adults.

Harm from migration disruption. The use of non-native Tropical milkweed also is believed to encourage Monarchs to overwinter in Florida instead of migrating, making them more susceptible to OE. The plant may escape into natural areas, causing further disruption of migration paths. By staying in Florida and continuously breeding, Monarchs risk death from food shortages and cold temperatures.
Although not documented scientifically, the higher concentration of cardenolides toxin in Tropical milkweed also may be detrimental to Monarch caterpillars.

Tropical milkweed, Asclepias currasavica
Planting non-native Tropical milkweed (Asclepias currasavica) can be detrimental to Monarchs. Photo by J.M. Garg (CC-BY-3.0)

Learn more about Tropical milkweed’s adverse effects.

What we are doing

The Florida Wildflower Foundation is supporting research at the Florida Museum of Natural History that is documenting the effect of chemicals applied to Tropical milkweed on Monarch caterpillars. This information will help growers produce the best plants possible for Monarchs.