No Flowers On Milkweed – Reasons For Milkweed Not Blooming
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By: Darcy Larum, Landscape Designer
Each year more and more gardeners are devoting parts of their landscape to pollinator gardens. Once treated like a nuisance weed, now the many different varieties of milkweed (Asclepias spp.) are highly sought out by gardeners wishing to attract monarch butterflies and other pollinators, as the sweet nectar of milkweed blooms attracts a wide variety of butterflies, bees, moths and hummingbirds. However, your dream of a garden filled with beautiful winged creatures can quickly become crushed if your milkweed won’t flower.
No Flowers on Milkweed, No Worries
Milkweed without flowers can be extremely disheartening to beginner butterfly gardeners. Most people assume milkweed without flowers will not attract any butterflies. Flowers or not, though, female monarch butterflies spend most of their lives seeking out milkweed plants to lay eggs upon. Once these eggs hatch, the caterpillars don’t care if their milkweed host plant has blooms as long as they have plenty of milkweed leaves to eat.
Though eventually these caterpillars will have their fill, form chrysalises and then fly away as butterflies, future generations of these original caterpillars will be drawn by instinct back to the same area to lay eggs for even more generations. In the monarch rearing community, we have a borrowed saying about milkweed and monarchs, “If you plant it, they will come.” This is true even for milkweed without flowers. I have been growing milkweed and raising monarchs for several years now and have observed just as many, if not more, monarch eggs and caterpillars on new small, young milkweed plants that have not produced flowers yet.
Reasons for Milkweed Not Blooming
Though a properly functioning pollinator garden should attract a variety of pollinators, newly planted milkweed plants without blooms is not a serious concern. Many varieties of milkweed will not bloom their first growing season. Instead, the plant’s energy will be focused into producing a vast and vigorous root system.
This strong root system will be important in future growing seasons when the plants become laden with blooms and top heavy. In addition to self-sowing seeds, many varieties of milkweed also self-propagate by forming colonies of spreading underground roots. The time and energy milkweed plants put into root development is very important in the long run.
There are, however, a few environmental factors that can cause milkweed plants to not produce flowers. Stress from heat or drought can cause some varieties of milkweed to not bloom. While some milkweed varieties prefer poor, dry soils and have excellent drought tolerance, other varieties will need moist soil and regular irrigation.
Likewise, too much shade can cause certain types of milkweed to not bloom, while other varieties of milkweed will prefer a little shade from intense sun. Researching the needs of the exact varieties of milkweed you are growing will help you figure out how to get milkweed blossoms from each type of milkweed.
Most milkweed varieties are very well adapted to grow in poor soil, some absolutely cannot grow in rich, fertile soils. They can be extremely sensitive to fertilizer damage. The cause of milkweed not blooming may be as simple as too much fertilizer or fertilizer runoff. Milkweed without flowers growing along regularly fertilized lawns, gardens or crop fields are probably getting too much nitrogen, which can cause lush green growth and a lack of blooms. Bone meal can help offset this.
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Growing Milkweed to Attract Butterflies
When we talk about milkweed and butterflies, we are usually talking about one butterfly in particular: the Monarch. Monarchs are fascinating creatures found in both eastern and western coastal regions of the United States. Adult monarchs migrate annually to Mexico. In the spring, they fly northward, stopping along the way to lay eggs. In a typical summer, 3 to 4 generations of monarchs may reach adulthood. The last generation doesn’t lay eggs, but flies south in the fall to overwinter in the mild forest regions of the Sierra Madre mountains in Mexico. Come spring, the cycle begins once again.
In recent years, monarch populations have declined due to several factors. Increased pesticide use often kills caterpillars before they can reach adulthood. Natural wetlands and fields, where milkweed grows abundantly, are disappearing, and with them, a major food source for monarch caterpillars, which eat only milkweed. Genetically modified corn crops are lethal to monarchs, as well. Finally, logging operations in the Sierra Madre mountain range have destroyed much of the habitat monarchs rely on to survive the winter.
Ranges of our Native Milkweeds
It is important to plant milkweeds that are native to your area. This is for the welfare of the plant and the Monarch Butterflies, who may rely on the species of milkweeds they encounter to navigate on their journey. Below are range maps of the several species of US native milkweed for which we carry Seed balls. There are many additional milkweeds that are also native. Some have restricted ranges, some are endangered or threatened. Most, unfortunately, are next to impossible to purchase seeds for. We have worked hard to find high quality milkweed seed for every part of the continental US. To see current data for ALL US native milkweed ranges, check the Biota of North America Program. They produced the maps, below.
Click maps to go see the image and description for the species or to purchase.