Some people hear the word weed and instantly want to get out the herbicide. But many plants labeled as weeds are beneficial native plants. Milkweeds are among the most beneficial native plants in the Chicago region.
Quite a few plant species used in landscaping are exotic—meaning they’ve been introduced to areas outside their natural ranges by humans. But many plants native to our area, such as milkweeds, have qualities that make them great landscaping and garden choices. Native plants usually require less maintenance than exotic plants. They’re better adapted to regional climate and soils, and more likely to resist common diseases and pests. Plus native plants provide vital sources of food and shelter for native animals, including birds and butterflies.
Several species of milkweeds are native to the Chicago region. They’re particularly important to butterflies for food, reproduction, and defense. Milkweed gets its name from the milky liquid in its stems and leaves. When caterpillars of milkweed butterflies, such as Monarchs, feed on milkweed leaves, they acquire a bitter taste that protects them from being eaten by predators.
The various milkweeds native to the Chicago region have different needs. Some tolerate drought, while others are suited to wet habitats. Whatever your local conditions and soils, you probably can find a native milkweed species to grow there. But never remove native plants from natural areas. Check with a native plant nursery to find potted native plants that will thrive in your garden’s conditions. To help identify native plants suited to your landscaping tastes, consult the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center website, which lets you search based on characteristics such as color, height, and bloom time.
Milkweed flowers are pretty and fragrant. Small, star-shaped flowers grow in large clusters. Flowers of most species in the Chicago region come in shades of pink, red, and orange. Some have a pleasant, delicate fragrance.
Female Monarch on Milkweed
No milkweeds, no Monarch butterflies. Milkweeds are essential for Monarch butterflies to reproduce. Female Monarchs lay their eggs on the underside of milkweed leaves. When caterpillars hatch, they eat only milkweed leaves until they’re ready to pupate.
Monarch caterpillar on Milkweed leaf
Planting milkweeds and other native plants helps provide essential habitat. As more land is developed and covered by buildings, pavement, and herbicide-heavy agriculture, natural areas where milkweeds grow are being lost. Because milkweeds are the only host plants for Monarch caterpillars, habitat loss has caused populations of Monarch butterflies to decline. In addition to supporting the protection of natural habitats, you can help conserve Monarch butterflies by adding patches of milkweed to your garden.
Fritillary butterfly on Milkweed
Flower nectar from milkweeds provides food for the adults of many butterflies, including Swallowtails, Painted Ladies, and Monarchs. In this photo, a Fritillary butterfly sips nectar from Purple Milkweed.
Pollinator on Milkweed
Nectar in milkweed flowers attracts many kinds of pollinators besides butterflies, including bees, flies, and beetles. Native plants help support healthy populations of pollinators. This benefits numerous plants, including crops, many of which need insects for pollination.
Milkweed pods in winter
All milkweed species produce pods of some kind, which make interesting features in winter gardens. It’s best to remove pods before they break open in spring and seeds scatter—unless you want lots of milkweeds sprouting in random places. You can collect seeds from the pods to plant in new areas. Dried, empty pods also can be used for craft projects.