21 Species of Native Milkweed for Attracting Butterflies

In gardening circles, we tend to throw around the word ‘weed’ haphazardly, using it to refer to plants that turn up where they weren’t intended. But what truly classifies a weed? What makes a plant that turns up unannounced undesirable? If you’re examining this year’s volunteer plants, determine if any milkweed species are valuable for butterflies before you toss them.

Among gardeners who cultivate pollinator gardens, that is, gardens that primarily serve the purpose of sustaining pollinators, the word ‘weed’ certainly has a different connotation. Possibly a different meaning altogether. It could be because we know that the plants that seem to come out of nowhere are typically a food source for pollinators.

When it comes to pollinator gardens, there is one ‘weed’ that is indispensable. Without this plant, we are likely to miss out on the most recognizable pollinators. Milkweed is the sole larval food for the beloved monarch butterfly. It is also a valuable nectar source for all types of pollinating insects and hummingbirds. 

Sadly, the monarch butterfly population has dwindled drastically in recent years, with a 22% decrease in population over the last year alone. Deforestation and urban development have destroyed much of the monarch’s migration ground in Mexico and California, and pesticides and herbicides have marred habitats all around the United States.

Many factors are stacked against the monarch’s existence and contributors to its endangered classification. As gardeners, we are limited in what we can do about many of these things. But, what we can do is help maintain their host plants and give them sanctuary in our own garden spaces. Here are 21 types of milkweed native to different regions of the United States. Cultivate one or more in your garden to help sustain the monarch population and feed other native pollinators. 

Antelope-Horns Milkweed

Antelope-horns milkweed is a clump-forming plant with lanceolate leaves and intricate star-shaped white and purple flowers.

This long-blooming milkweed species has an interesting name derived from the appearance of the seed pods, which resemble antelope horns. The plant is clump-forming, with long, thin, lanceolate leaves that fold lengthwise slightly and stems ranging from bright green to a slight purple cast.

Their round clusters of flowers are wonderfully intricate. Each small flower has five light green petals arranged in a star shape. The interior of the flowers is white and purple with five small hoods that spread in a star shape as well when the flowers bloom. The plant stems are lightly pubescent, but the leaves are not.

Aquatic Milkweed

Close up of a cluster of 30-50 tiny starry flowers that are pure white growing on the end of a thin branch with oblong green leaves. A small cluster of white flower buds are to the top and slightly behind the flower cluster out of focus.This species attracts butterflies with its sweetly scented nectar.

Aquatic milkweed or white swamp milkweed is a small to medium-sized variety native to marshy areas of the southern U.S. It has umbels of lightly fragrant, white flowers. The blooming season is in late spring, and this species is important to monarchs returning from their winter migration.

Butterflies and bees are fond of these little flowers, as they are a great source of nectar. Aquatic milkweed is evergreen, making it very important to overwintering butterflies in Florida.

The blooms top off slender purple-to-green stems flanked by short, narrow leaves. The entire plant can have a pink cast in some cases. The seeds are different from most species. Rather than the fluffy seeds produced by most types of milkweed, aquatic milkweed seeds are winged and designed to float on water. This variety is very tolerant of damp soil environments. 

Arizona Milkweed

A monarch butterfly with striking orange and black wings gracefully rests on a delicate white Arizona milkweed blossom. The blurred backdrop features a tapestry of slender sow stems and verdant leaves.This species features small white-pink clusters of flowers that attract butterflies.

Arizona milkweed is native and endemic exclusively to southern Arizona. This shrubby, small species grows in clumps, preferring dry, rocky soil and high elevations. It is commonly found growing on mountains and in woodland areas. The stems are tall and unbranched, with thin, lanceolate leaves that vary in density. 

The flowers are small and white to pink, appearing in clusters atop the thin stems. The outer petals are slightly reflexed, with horns that extend beyond the hoods. It is an important species for monarch survival and serves as an important food source for carpenter bees.

Broadleaf Milkweed

A broadleaf milkweed plant, showcasing its rosette shape with green leaves arranged in a circular pattern. At the heart of the rosette, unopened green flower buds stand out. The soft focus background features a tapestry of grass and various flowers.Broadleaf milkweed has large leaves and creamy white flowers that are toxic to animals.

This very robust and sturdy species is a native plant from the Great Plains to the West Coast. It has a very different leaf configuration than most species. The leaves are quite broad and elliptical. They form a loose rosette around a main stem. These leaves can grow quite large toward the base of the stem.

The flower clusters are partially obscured by the leaves, which tend to grow in an upward-facing fashion. The flowers are creamy white to pale green, with petals and sepals reflecting away from the hoods.

This species is known to pop up where grazing animals can come in contact with it. Unfortunately, it is highly toxic to these animals and also to pets, as all milkweed species are. 

Butterfly Milkweed

A cluster of butterfly milkweeds in full bloom, displaying a rich palette of orange blossoms and red flower buds. Brown stems elegantly uphold the clusters of milkweed, creating a visually captivating contrast against the lush backdrop of slender green leaves. Butterfly milkweed is a compact native species with stiff stems and bright orange flowers.

Topping out at only two feet tall, butterfly milkweed is a smaller variety. The leaves are large, stiff, and lanceolate, flanking stiff stems that support umbels of bright orange flowers. This variety is native to most of the United States and Canada and blooms all summer, providing an important food source for butterflies.

This species does not produce the sticky, white sap that most milkweed species do. It likes full sun and well-drained soil and is virtually pest and disease-free. This species will also attract hummingbirds and bees and makes a nice cut flower with a long vase life.

California Milkweed

Overhead view of a plant with dull, grayish, or wooly appearance to its gray-green leaves and stems as they are thickly covered in white hairs. These leaves are thick and teardrop-shaped. Small, dark red flowers with yellow centers bloom throughout the plant, which grows in the dry, light orange, sandy soil of a desert on a very sunny day.This drought-tolerant milkweed species plays a critical role in supporting pollinators in California.

California has its fair share of milkweed species that call the state their home. This species, which is endemic to a small region in the southern part of the state, also shares the state’s name.

California milkweed is a highly drought-tolerant plant, and the foliage is covered in soft hairs, which help to protect the plant from intense sun exposure. It typically pops up in sandy and clay-heavy soils on hillsides.

This species produces an abundance of flowers that are highly attractive to butterflies. The flower clusters are pendulous and downward facing, and when still in bud, they are also covered in soft, downy hairs. The sepals open and reflex away from pink, bulbous anthers. The leaves of this species are larger than most milkweed species.

Common Milkweed

A bunch of pink common milkweed clusters stands out, set against a blurred backdrop of lush green grass. In mid-flight, a bee extracts nectar from the open milkweed blossoms. Flourishing gracefully, the milkweed flowers exhibit healthy green stems and leaves.This widespread plant is loved by butterflies, hummingbirds, and gardeners due to its attractive flowers and growth habit.

As its name suggests, common milkweed is highly available and widely cultivated throughout most of the country. It is beloved by butterflies and hummingbirds, and as a result, gardeners as well! It has an upright growth habit with large, ovate leaves and spreads by underground rhizomes. 

The flower umbels are nearly spherical, forming pretty pink balls atop the branching, green stems of the plant. The flowers are quite small and wonderfully fragrant, with reflexed petals. This species is excellent at colonizing and spreads freely by windborne seeds.

Desert Milkweed

Against the desert mountains and the expanse of sky, milkweeds create a striking contrast with their verdant presence. Their tall, slender stems support elongated leaves, a testament to nature's ability to adapt and flourish in even the harshest environments.This species thrives in dry, hot conditions with poor soil.

Desert milkweed needs dry, hot weather and sandy soil conditions to flourish. It sounds strange, but it’s true. This tall species is usually covered with fine white hairs, which protect it from the hot sun and help it retain moisture to survive the harsh conditions of the desert. 

The foliage is green, but depending on the degree of pubescence can appear silver or grey. The leaves are mid-sized and lanceolate to ovate.

Clusters of green and white flowers top the tall stems, with each flower having a reflexed crown.

Heartleaf Milkweed

A cluster of purple heartleaf milkweed buds, displaying velvety textures and a promising burst of color. Amidst the sea of foliage, the purple heartleaf milkweed's buds stand out as beacons of potential. Their subdued shades harmonize with the larger leaves.Heartleaf milkweed features showy heart-shaped leaves on purple stems alongside pale pink flowers with deep pink-purple sepals.

This very showy and attractive milkweed species grows on the West Coast of the United States and is only native to California, Nevada, and Oregon. Despite its limited native range, it is quite popular for its ornamental appeal.

As the name heartleaf milkweed implies, the large leaves are heart-shaped and arranged opposite one another on purple stems. The leaves can sometimes take on the same purple hue.

The flowers hang in peduncles at the top of stems and have a slight weeping habit. Five deep pink-purple sepals open to small, pale pink flowers. This species is low-growing and is usually found in rocky areas of woodlands and forests. It blooms in its second year, in spring and summer. 

Narrowleaf Milkweed

Four clusters of delicate narrowleaf milkweeds stand tall, their verdant stems providing sturdy support. Long, slender leaves gracefully accompany the clusters. The flowers' lavender petals surround the white coronas.Narrowleaf milkweed is an excellent species for butterfly gardens and features large lavender and white nectar-rich flowers.

One important species for butterflies native to the Western United States is narrowleaf milkweed. This valuable food source for migrating monarchs is fast to colonize and very adaptable in terms of soil, water, and heat. It establishes and grows quickly, making it a great choice for the butterfly garden.

The flower clusters are large (4”-5” across) and upright on narrow stems with long, pointed leaves. The star-like individual flowers are lavender and white with a reflexed corona. These flowers produce a lot of nectar and are very popular among butterflies, bees, and hummingbirds.

Poke Milkweed

Amidst prominent elongated leaves form a backdrop, delicate poke milkweeds gracefully hang from slender stems, swaying with ethereal elegance. Their green petals cascade like tears, exposing white floral hoods in a graceful dance. Featuring an attractive weeping appearance, poke milkweed thrives in diverse soils.

Poke milkweed has a unique and beautiful weeping appearance, with large, attractive leaves borne to either side of an unbranched stem. This variety is not picky about soil types and is happy in sandy soils of varying pH. As long as there is good drainage, poke milkweed will be happy. 

The pedicels of flowers weep downward like so many tiny, shooting stars. The light green, star-like petals fold backward, revealing white hoods.

The flowers on this species are noteworthy, not only for their weeping quality, but they also contain a large amount of nectar and have a pungent and sweet aroma.

Prairie Milkweed

Amidst a sea of swaying tall grasses in the distant background, a bumblebee elegantly hovers above the pink blooms of prairie milkweed. The sturdy, verdant green stems of the prairie milkweed rise tall, adorned with elongated leaves.Prairie milkweed is a garden-friendly plant with an attractive appearance, smooth leaves, and fragrant pink flowers.

This pretty plant likes full sun and moist, rich soil conditions. It spreads by rhizomes but is less aggressive than common milkweed, making it a great garden plant. This species has a similar appearance to common milkweed, and in most respects, they are very similar. 

Prairie milkweed is a moderate-sized species with sturdy stems that commonly branch toward the upper ends. The leaves are smooth and elliptical, with a central vein that can be pink, white, or green.

The flowers are deep orchid pink to lavender and very fragrant. This species is also larval food for the milkweed leaf-miner fly, so this little plant gets a lot of attention from insects.

Rush Milkweed

Thin green stems hold clusters of rush milkweed's light yellow flowers, creating a vibrant display. Behind them, a blurred scene of taller stems devoid of blossoms adds depth to the composition.This milkweed species is a unique desert plant with stiff stems, bearing leaves only after rain.

Rush milkweed is a desert plant with some unique characteristics. It comprises many stiff stems that rise from the plant’s crown.

The interesting thing about these stems is that they bear no leaves, except after periods of rain, when small leaves may appear, but these are inconspicuous. The stems are densely arranged, and the flower umbels appear at the top.

This milkweed species is also a larval food for queen butterflies, so it is an extra vital cultivar to maintain. The flowers are light yellow to white and form terminal clusters followed by smooth seed pods.

This is one of the few evergreen varieties of milkweed, so it is very important to overwintering pollinators. It is also an exceptionally tall species. 

Showy Milkweed

A close-up of clusters of pink showy milkweed blossoms and buds.  The pink blossoms resemble captivating clusters of delicate spikes, adding texture to the arrangement. Their thick stems offer robust support, adorned with elongated leaves.Showy milkweed has blue-green foliage and attractive pink and white star-shaped flowers that grow in spherical clusters.

This highly ornamental milkweed species is native to most of the central and western United States. It has a large range and makes a wonderful addition to the flower or butterfly garden.

The plant is mid-sized, reaching 1-3’ tall at maturity. With lovely, flocked, blue-green foliage, the plant is pretty enough without the flowers.

Showy milkweed’s flowers are stunning. Small pink and white, star-shaped flowers bloom in spherical clusters at the top of tall stems. Typically, they have dusty pink buds that open to mostly white, fragrant blooms, but the pink sepals will remain, creating a wonderful pink glow from within. 

Swamp Milkweed

Vibrant deep pink swamp milkweed flowers gracefully rise above a sea of lush, vibrant leaves. Although numerous, the leaves seem to outnumber the flowers. The blurred background paints a diverse tapestry of green plants, adding depth to the serene setting.This tall and attractive species blooms pink flowers throughout summer and fall.

Swamp milkweed is a very important species, as it is naturally occurring in most of the United States, and it blooms throughout the summer and into the fall, when monarch butterflies are preparing to migrate for the winter. It also happens to be a very attractive and tall species of milkweed.

This species has tall, upright stems with olive green, lanceolate leaves. The stems are tinged with pink, and at the top, bright pink flowers bloom in umbels for a long period.

Everything about this plant is pretty, from the stems to the foliage, especially the pretty pink blooms. Even the seed pods this species produces are attractive and enticing to butterflies. It also has excellent cold and heat tolerance, with a wide range of zones where it will grow.

Tall Green Milkweed

Close up of the top of a tall plant with a sturdy dark green-purple stem. The tip is filled with white-green flowers that form a cluster. The long, thin leaves alternate up the stem. There is more greenery growing in the blurred background.The flower clusters grow all the way up the stems of tall green milkweed, giving more space for butterflies to pollinate.

Tall green milkweed is a very eye-catching species that is excellent for attracting butterflies. The formation of flower umbels intermittently along the tall stems is unique, as most species form flowers only at the top of stems. 

Velvetleaf Milkweed

Close up of a cluster of pale-green flowers with delicate touches of light purple. The flowers each have five petals with hoods that opened up to reveal the tiny flowers. There are small raindrops on the petals of the flowers. The top of the cluster reveals green leaves that grow from the plant. As the only milkweed species to tolerate saltwater, velvetleaf milkweed is vital to monarch butterflies migrating through Florida.

Possibly the most significant species of milkweed for monarchs in the state of Florida is velvetleaf milkweed. Every year, thousands of monarch butterflies appear in the coastal panhandle of Florida, pausing before they make their long journey to Central Mexico, where they overwinter. This takes place in October and November, and as a butterfly enthusiast, it is spectacular to behold. 

Velvetleaf is important because it is the only species of milkweed that can tolerate salt water. This sturdy plant has tall, unbranched stems flanked with stiff leaves that have a flocked texture to their surface, to which their name is an homage.

The flower clusters are borne atop these stems. Flowers are pale green, occasionally with purple accents. This species is not available commercially and is endemic to Northern Florida.

White Milkweed

A close-up reveals tiny white milkweed flowers. Positioned just behind the flowers, a cluster of green buds promises new life. Further in the background, another gathering of white milkweed flowers adds a depth of natural elegance to the scene.White milkweed features variegated flowers and deep green foliage, attracting diverse pollinators with its aromatic nectar.

Also called redring milkweed, white milkweed is native to the Eastern US coast and ranges inland as far west as Texas and Illinois. The scientific name of this species might seem a bit misleading when you see the plant, but the word variegata refers, in this instance, to the flowers rather than the leaves. 

This species is very durable and tolerant of drought and prefers partial shade, as opposed to full sun, like most of its relatives. The foliage is deep green, strikingly contrasting the milky white flowers. The interior of the flowers is deep purple. They are strongly aromatic, which helps draw pollinators of all kinds to their ample nectar supply.

Whorled Milkweed

A slender stem of a whorled milkweed plant rises gracefully, adorned with elegant clusters of pure white flowers and budding purple gems. In the backdrop, a soft blur of lush greenery provides a harmonious natural setting.Whorled milkweed forms colonies with delicate foliage, thriving in dry, rocky soil and showcasing lacy white flower umbels.

This small, late-blooming milkweed is rhizomatic and forms lovely small colonies of delicate foliage and flowers. The thin, needle-like leaves whorl around a central stem in a loose rosette, giving this pretty plant its nickname. 

Whorled milkweed likes dry, rocky, and sandy soil types. Its thin foliage adds a beautiful texture to the landscape, and its bright green pods stand up tall from the top of the stems. Before the pods form, the blooms are arranged in white, lacy umbels of tiny, delicate flowers.

Woolypod Milkweed

Close up of a delicate cluster of light pink flowers and buds that have a wooly appearance. The green-gray leaves in the background are slightly blurred but also have the same wooly appearance due to the fine white hairs that cover the plant. The wooly appearance of this species is due to the fine white hairs that cover the plant.

A soft coating of fine white hairs is what gives this milkweed its name. Both the leaves and pods are fuzzy, giving them a grayish-green appearance.

While the hairs on the leaves are shirt and soft, the hairs on the pods are longer. This variety likes well-drained soil and a dry environment and can tolerate a variety of soil types

The flower clusters contain many small, cream-colored flowers. The petals fold backward, and the hoods stand out beyond them. These flowers have a slight waxy scent and bloom from spring through fall, making them a great addition to the flower garden or butterfly garden. 

Zizotes Milkweed

A close up of a Zizotes Milkweed bloom displays a cluster of dainty blush flowers and large, hairy green leaves. Zizotes milkweed is a good species for attracting butterflies to your garden, especially if you live in a dry climate.

Our last species is one that you’ve probably not seen, in the wild or otherwise, but it has such a fun name and some unique traits that it deserves a mention. It is a small plant, remaining close to the ground. The foliage is denser than most milkweeds and has a silvery cast. 

The flowers are unique in that they form close to the stem and in between leaves as opposed to an independent cluster. The pale green blooms have a hood that extends past the stigma and flares at the ends. It does well in dry climates but will produce more leaves and flowers following rain.

One to Avoid:

Tropical Milkweed

A close-up of tropical milkweed flowers and buds, nestled among elongated green leaves. The flower's orange petals are accented by the bright yellow crowns at their centers. The budding flowers add a touch of regal purple anticipation to the scene.This species harms monarchs due to its non-native status, potential parasite transmission, and interference with reproductive cycles.

Tropical milkweed is common in nurseries across most of the country. The plant is banned in California, but most people still recognize it as the most familiar type of milkweed. However, it is not native to the United States, and it is not beneficial to monarchs during the portion of their migration that takes place here. 

This tall, leafy, upright plant with gold and crimson flowers certainly is pretty, and it is a robust and vigorous grower, but it is not the best thing to plant in North American gardens. Tropical milkweed is particularly detrimental in climates where it is evergreen, zones 8-11. A parasite called Ophryocystis elektroscirrha can travel with monarchs and overwinter on these plants, reproducing and harming the monarch population.

There is also reason to believe that this particular type of milkweed, while it is a viable and suitable food source for monarchs in the spring, is not the ideal source for them in the fall, as it can interfere with their reproductive cycles. 

Final Thoughts

With 73 species native to the United States, there are more than enough types of milkweed plants to suit every garden. These plants are great nectar producers, helping to sustain the populations of many pollinating insects. Their existence as larval food for monarchs is of great importance, and sustaining this plant is paramount in the preservation of this most recognizable of butterflies. 

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