5 Spring Plants That Could Save Monarch Butterflies
Spring is an extremely important time for monarch butterflies. The overwintering populations will soon head north to lay the first monarch eggs of the season. These butterflies need new milkweed to feed monarch caterpillars, and nectar flowers to inspire weary females to lay the groundwork (eggs) for future generations.
Many butterfly gardeners prefer summer plants that are in their prime during the height of monarch season. But to ensure there is a “height” to the season, it’s important to provide the returning ‘migration generation’ the breakfast it needs for a productive season.
Here are 5 spring butterfly plants to consider for your garden if you want to help returning monarch butterflies get off to a flying start:
1. Spider Milkweed (Asclepias viridis)- This early milkweed variety is a shorter species that would make a great garden border for either taller milkweeds plants or nectar flowers.
- Perennial most common in USDA plant hardiness zones 5-9
- Essential milkweed for monarch butterfies returning north from Mexico
- Height 1 to 2.5 feet
- Bloom time May- July
- Purple and green blooms also attract other pollinators like the Hairstreak above
- Plant in full sun – drought tolerant
- Find Asclepias viridis seeds and plants by clicking here
More Photos and Info about Spider Milkweed Here
2. Chives (Allium schoenoprasum)- A low maintenance plant with fragrant purple flowers that can also be used to impart a more ‘subtle’ onion flavor into your culinary creations.
- Perennial recommended in USDA plant hardiness zones 4-9
- Colder zones can grow annually
- Height 1 to 2 feet
- Container garden option
- allium plants have been shown to repel aphids
- Bloom time April-June
- Showy purple blooms on green stalks
- Plant in full sun
- Find Spring Chives for Butterflies Here
3. Siberian Wallflower (Erysimum x marshallii)- A winning combination of brilliant orange flowers with an intoxicating aroma that attracts monarchs, other butterflies, bees, and hummingbirds. Click the play button to watch a feeding monarch butterfly:
- Biennial most common in USDA plant hardiness zones 3-9
- Colder zones might try starting seeds indoors or plant annually
- Height 1.5 to 2 feet
- Good option for container gardening
- Bloom time March-May
- Vibrant orange flowers
- Full sun to partial shade
- Buy Siberian Wallflowers for Spring Butterfly Plants
4. May Night Salvia (Salvia x superba ‘Mainacht’)- Striking blue and purple spikes make this hybrid of S.nemorosa and S. sylvestris a winner with butterflies and gardeners alike. The parent varieties are also excellent butterfly attractors!
- Perennial most common in USDA plant hardiness zones 3-9
- Perennial plant of the year in 1997
- Height 1.5 to 3 foot spikes
- Excellent container garden idea
- Bloom time March-May (reblooms w/deadheading)
- Deep blue and purple blooms
- Plant in full sun
- Find ‘May Night’ Salvia here
5. Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca)- One of the earliest sprouting milkweed varieties, this is a preferred spring milkweed because of its large, thick leaves that can sustain many monarch caterpillars.
- Perennial most common in USDA plant hardiness zones 4-9
- Many other butterflies and bees use this as a nectar source
- Height 4-6 feet – we have some that eclipse 7!
- Bloom time June-August
- Fragrant pink and white flowers
- Plant in full sun – drought resistant
- Can be invasive with underground rhizomes – tips to control common
- Find Reliable Asclepias Syriaca for spring monarchs
These, of course, aren’t the only options that can sustain early monarch generations, but they are some of the most reliable plants in my experience. They are also commonly reported to be ‘spring monarch magnets’ by other butterfly gardeners.
See More Butterfly Plant Ideas for all seasons
I have three different types of Milkweed seed in a container, that I stratified, but NONE of them are growing!
I keep giving them water, but I don’t know if it’s too much or not enough. I’ve set up pollinator gardens for several years now, and am not having tons of success. Lot’s of bees, and a few butterflies fly through, but I don’t have enough of the “right” plants.
I am in So CA, 10a and 10b according to the internet, and am finding confusion based on the specific “names” of plants to bring the butterflies in. For example, one year I planted regular old Alyssum, which did not even interest the bees!! Then I found out it has to be “SWEET Alyssum”. Do I need to be this specific for success?
Ni Nicole, sorry to hear of your milkweed woes. Sometimes it helps seeds to germinate if you soak them in water 24 hours before planting…it softens the seed coat. As for ‘specific’ plants, yes, this can sometimes make a huge difference in how many butterflies/bees you will attract. I’m not sure about alyssum but it’s certainly worth trying the ‘suggested’ variety to see if it yields better results…
I live in Southwest Florida. And I’ve been getting my milkweed plants from my Nursery… They suggested spraying them first with a soap and water (Dawn) solution and then rinsing them off, that gets rid of any pesticides that any home Nursery Farm may have sprayed. I have a butterfly cage that my boyfriend built for me. A a day or two before they’re ready to cocoon, I transfer them to the cage where I have three more milkweed plants waiting for them to finish their dining and then they climb the side screens up to the top and do their cocoon thing! When they’re ready to emerge, or have already emerged, I just open the side door and they fly out when they’re ready! I have so far in the last month released 23 butterflies and have at least 25 more cocoons getting ready… And seven more caterpillars in the cage Plus at least 25 more smaller ones growing!
Hi! I have been growing common milkweed for years, but I have a huge problem; the flies they attract. The milkweed will have hundreds of flies swarming the patch, on the blossoms and on the leaves. Some of flies get their little feet stuck in the blossoms and end up dying. I have tried to do research to figure out why they are attracted, and how to deter them, with no luck. It is really embarrassing to have guest over and have the visual and the sound of the flies.
Hi Sage…flies are pollinators too, although admittedly more annoying ones. You could always try diversifying your milkweed to bring in less flies. Here are 25 options to consider:
Milkweed for Butterfly Gardens
Urgent need help my 5yr old found a cocoon an brought it in it hatched into a beautiful eastern tiger swallow tail but it is middle of winter hear and I don’t want her to starve I have sugar water in a dish with paper towels but we have about 3 months till warm weather what can I do to try to keep her alive
Hi Deana, swallowtail chrysalides overwinter outside. We’re overwintering some in a 3-season porch so they won’t emerge until spring. You can keep the butterfly in an enclosure and see if it can survive until spring. There’s info about feeding adult butterflies here:
Feeding and Releasing Adult Butterflies
Zone 9a I planted some milkweed at the school where I teach. It is January 3rd and I am still finding caterpillars, yet there is no milkweed to be found. Is tropical milkweed harming the monarch population by blooming so late?
Hi Kelly, in continuous growing regions there are some non-migratory monarchs that continue the life cycle…the overwintering population in Mexico the past two seasons has been better than expected, so the majority are still making the long trek. The numbers for this winter should be released in the next month or so. Here’s some info about dealing with dreaded:
I live in an urban area but have decided to turn my car park into a garden. Half is almost full sun so the vegetables have to go there. I’d like to have a monarch butterfly garden but the only space left is almost full shade. What are my best plant options? Which milkweed will grow in shade?
Hi Jennifer, full shade is tough, although you could end up with some eggs during the hot summer months. I’d advise you to test out a few species native/perennial to your region and see what works best. You could also try putting some varieties in containers and moving to at least partial sun.
25 Milkweed Varieties to Consider
Growing Milkweed in Containers
is there a non-invasive milkweed i can plant for monarchs? i’m already pulling out ivy and trunpet vine escapees and don’t want to add another.
Hi Barbara, check out these options:
Swamp milkweed can seed a lot, but you can cut off the pods prematurely to prevent this…
were can i find these
Hi Todd, check out this list:
suggested milkweed stores
The first Monarch I saw in my garden this summer was on a lupine flower, and then it immediately found the common milkweed. It was June 24 in coastal Maine. I’m wondering what else blooms early that really attracts the butterflies so that they can find the milkweed?
Thanks for all your great information!
Hi Dottie, besides the plants on this list, spring flowering fruit trees…they will even flower on dandelions in early spring if other nectar isn’t available. wild ageratum (Conoclinium coelestinum) also starts blooming earlier in the season and is a preferred nectar plant.
Chives? Are they a nectar plant? One of my flowerbeds is overrun with chives and Wife has been pulling them out. I may need to have her wait until there are other flowers blooming.
Hi Bob, chives are a nectar flower for monarchs and other pollinators too
I have recently started turning my backyard in town to a butterfly habitat. I was thinking of planting stations for different types of butterflies. Examples would be milkweed and favorite nectar plants for the monarch or planting favorite nectar plants for the spice bush swallowtail around my spice bush plant. My thinking was that it might help with not only competition for the same plant but keep host and nectar plants close together for that particular species. Or would it be better to just plant favorable plants everywhere and let the chips fall where they may
Hi Kathy, it’s a good idea to plant your host plants in patches so caterpillars don’t run out of food, but many butterflies share the same nectar flowers. There are no hard rules for gardening…just lots of experiments over time to see what works best for your region and situation. if you are just starting out, check out this post, and apply some of the same idea to starting patches for other butterflies too:
How to Start a Monarch Butterfly Garden
Our first two monarchs emerged midmorning and are drying their wings in their cage. I’m wondering if we can release them onto orange blossoms, which are on a large tree in the yard. We do have milkweed plants with flowers in the yard, but we also have lizards which prowl around the raised bed where the plants are growing.
Hi Jan, I let them sun dry in their mesh cages. after a couple hours they have lots of energy and should be less vulnerable to predators:
Releasing Monarch Butterflies
I have been growing asclepius for many years….the ones I have the most of, have gotten VERY tall…maybe 3 feet tall and wide. When do the monarchs lay their eggs? If it was in the fall, last fall, and I did trim the plants then, where would the eggs be? Gone of course. If the eggs were laid in the fall and I did NOT trim the plants at all (which is what happened) then when could I NOW trim the plants as I would still be trimming off the eggs the monarchs laid in the fall? HELP! Also many years ago, when I did not know what the caterpillars looked like, they ate my PARSLEY for weeks and I bought them a new pot of parsley for weeks until the road runner ate them all one night…I won’t make the road runner mistake again, as I had NOT put netting over the caterpillars prior to the road runner episode! thanks.
Hi Sondra, monarchs lay eggs spring through early fall depending on your location and the health of your milkweed. Monarchs will arrive in the southern US in March (I think they are going to be early this year because of the warm weather)
If you’re cutting back milkweed in the fall, be sure to check for eggs/caterpillars before you discard. if you have problems seeing them, you could wait until after the season is over.
As for swallowtails (and all caterpillars) there are many different predators searching for them. Yes, netting can help deter some or you could try raising a few indoors. Good luck!
I have two acres set aside for a butterfly/pollinator garden. The acreage is in full sun and consists of well drained to wet soil. Since we raise grass fed beef, there are no pesticides or chemicals on our land. I’d like to get it certified as a Monarch Way Station. Milkweed already exists. I’ve planted alliums and have been researching plans and plants. Do you suggest open meadow seeding or grouping of plants? Native plants will compromise the majority of what I plant. I reside in Zone 5b in Canada.
Thanks so much for any advice you can give!
Hi Julia, if you want to create a large prairie habitat I would suggest checking out resources like this which discuss how to utilize larger areas to attract/support monarchs:
Parks for Monarchs
Good luck creating your habitat!
How awesome!! It’s nice to hear caring home & land owners like Julia wanting to set aside acres for these butterflies 🙂 🙂
I’ve actually have had a lot of butterflies in my Gardens this year enjoying my flowers. I want to do my part in saving Monarchs as well as other species. This year I have planted Mkweed and butterfly flower.
What flowers should I have for spring?
Hi Deb, it really depends on your region and whether you want to grow all native, or a combination of native and non-invasive annuals. Here’s a post you should find helpful:
Starting (or improving) a Monarch Butterfly Garden
Hi Tony. I’m from Ireland and totally new to this. I have a buddleia bush which over the last couple of years has become a real butterfly attraction. I want to turn my small back garden into a little haven for butterflies and wonder if you could recommend some plants that would be suitable for containers. Thanks so much.
Hi Susan, check out my butterfly plants page and research to see if any of these plants would grow well in your region:
Butterfly Plants Page
I have a hypothesis that several of the “specific monarch attractant” nectar sources may be not merely sources of copious, nutritionally valuable nectar, but also sources of pyrolizidine alkaloids (“PAs,” hepatotoxic to vertebrates and apparently distasteful to most spiders, but precursors to the Queen pheromone, danaidal [Monarchs, unlike the more southerly milkweed butterflies don’t need that [or related] chemical to reproduce but do respond to it]). Echium (borage family), Mexican flame vine (Senecio tribe of daisies), Conoclinium greggii and Liatris ligulistylis (both of the Eupatorium tribe of daisies) all belong to botanical groups with a reputation for often harming mammals with these alkaloids. (This is not true, to my knowledge, of Tithonia, Rudbeckia lacianata, Verbenna, or the plants in this article, but they are also reported to be popular with diverse species rather than just Danaids). This raises my interest in early-blooming borages (notorious sources of PAs): marbleseeds (Onosmodium molle/bejariense, which get glowing reviews at http://www.dallasbutterflies.com but which http://www.illinoiswildflowers.info says are bumblebee–pollinated & which frankly doesn’t look very showy) and the pucoons (native Lithospermum ssp., which are showy and clearly designed for pollination by butterflies, though I find no specific mention of Monarchs). (Marbleseed is possibly also a host for Painted Lady cats, though they aren’t very picky.). Those in or near Ohio might also try Senecio/Packera obovata (which is there the host for the rare Northern Metalmark), though one wonders if its partial shade habitat could appeal to nectaring butterflies in a season that is still rather cool. Has anyone tried any of these as nectar plants?
Different topic, more closely related to Tony’s article: Ritcher’s Herbs sells a triploid, basically sterile variety of onion chives they call “Profusion.” Presumably it would flower longer in its largely futile attempt to set seed (w/o deadheading!). Has anyone tried it in comparison to the regular forms–is the nectar still popular with butterflies?
I planted the allium chive bulbs in the fall and on April 20 in NJ, there are nice big green buds about to burst into color. I’m about to burst with excitement waiting for them to bloom. 🙂
Hi Tony. Last summer I had great success with my butterfly garden–several monarchs were born as well as some zebra longwings. This spring about 50% of the monarchs are coming out with deformed wings, etc.
I assumed all the milkweeds have OE virus and pulled out and threw them all away.
1) I plan on removing the mulch that was under the plants. Should I spray the soil with a bleach solution or milton before replanting?
2) I bought fresh milkweeds: Can I spray them with a bleach solution (and rinse of course) before I plant them? Would this help?
Hi Dulce, sorry to hear you are having issues with OE…using a bleach solution on the plants and then rinse off before planting would kill OE spores if they are present. good luck!
Tony where in the east part of San Diego, Ca . We already have 32 Chrysalides, it’s taken us 3 years to figure it out and still learning! It’s early in the season and we have been really focused on plant growth! So it’s going to be another busy season even though it’s Early for them! Wishing everyone a Wonderful monarch season!
Hi Conni, and congrats on your early monarch season. I am so happy to hear you are focusing on growing plants, because it makes the raising process go so much smoother when there’s plenty of milkweed. Thank you for your update and good luck with the rest of your season!
How hard is it to move milkweed to another spot. In the fall? I also purchased a plant called an umbrella plant for butterflies and cannot find it in any book. It is not a schefalera. The bloom looks like an fat unopened yellow umbrella, but opens to a stalk of yellow blooms. Do you know the name?
Hi Jeanne, you might try searching google images to see if you can find a picture of it. I am familiar with the plant from your description. good luck!
Do you know if it is okay to move milkweed to another area of my garden?
Hi Jeanne, fall is a great time to transplant milkweed. I just transplanted some poke and showy milkweed in the last couple weeks. Here’s more info:
How To Transplant Milkweed
This is very exciting —
But I am new to this and confused a little — do you just grow the plants and hope for the best or do you grow the plants and then order monarch eggs or caterpillars and put them on the plants.
it depends on how patient you are Roz. Personally, I feel more satisfaction and excitement attracting them into the garden, but when you are just starting out it’s good to have the ordering option in case you need it. Good luck!
Roz, I planted some milkweed, and wondered the same thing, as I hadn’t seen a monarch in years. Two weeks later a female came by and laid a bunch of eggs! That didn’t take long (that was in August, in Northern CA). I’m kind of the I’ll set it up, then let nature takes its course type of person. Now I’m planting a bunch more varieties of milk weed, mostly local to CA.
Hi Tony, a couple of years ago a plant started growing by our driveway, didn’t know what it was but was kind of pretty. Then last fall it was looking scraggly so I pulled it up, looked closer and saw a bunch of Monarch caterpillars! I found out what it was, and frantically ran around to all the nurseries in the area to find another milkweed, which no one had. I went back and planted the one I’d pulled up in a pot, and collected the remaining seeds. Found another one in the yard and a few of the babies survived on that and metamorphised into butterflies. We’re in California near the coast, and during the winter it’s common to have 80 degree days for weeks at a time.
Since then I planted a few areas of our yard that are designated Monarch habitat. I have given plants to a couple of our neighbors who are interested in helping the Monarchs survive. At the moment there are 4 caterpillars in our kitchen (90% chance of rain tomorrow) on the original plant that survived and re grew. My husband says I need to get a hobby, but I told him this is my hobby now! Keep up the good work,
Thank you, Jennifer
Congrats on your exciting new hobby Jennifer. If you are still adding milkweed to your yard, patches of 6 plants (or more!) work well to support monarchs. Have a great season!
I always look forward to your posts and learn so much from them! Tank you. This was a great and useful post. I have seen first Instar cats around and have been collecting them when I can (tiny little things) but I haven’t seen the Monarchs 🙁 Right now the nectar plants are nil, and finding “organic”‘ no pesticide plants is difficult. Do you know of any nurseries in the LA area that I could use. If plants have pesticide, how long till it wears down?
Hi Lee, it’s better to find organically grown plants than to “guesstimate” how long pesticide treated pants will potentially harm monarchs and pollinators…it depends on what pesticides were used, how much, and when they were applied. I would say it’s pretty much impossible to get accurate answers to all those questions.
I’m in Minnesota and we get the majority of our plants ant an annual plant sale where all of the plants are grown organically. I would search to see if you have similar plant sales in your region.
There are also plenty of online options to find pesticide free plants, and it’s often easier to find exactly what you are looking for. I am updating my nectar plants page this week and will post some links to find nectar plants online. I will post that over the weekend…
Thanks for your very informative website about helping monarchs.
One thing I’d point out about A. syriaca (Common milkweed) is that when it is in its native range (most of eastern and midwest US) it cannot be called “invasive” – because it is not invading its on territory. Aggressive, yes. Invasive, no. Similarly, I hear fancy gardeners call it a garden thug and I want to scream. Nature gave it that aggressive habit in order to provide plenty of fresh foliage for monarch caterpillars (and others) plus the life-giving nectar it provides for adult leps and also hummingbirds. Hoping that the word invasive and syriaca will never be used again in same sentence – (unless it is outside its range, eg UK, AU, NZ etc.) All good wishes for the new year! Ina.
Hi Ina, I have a different philosophy. Invasive, to me, means any plant that has the potential to become bothersome or unmanageable in a garden setting. That most definitely includes common milkweed. But I don’t focus on that. I’m up front about the potential issues, and then tell people what they can do to manage the issues before they get out of control.
We have about 80 common milkweed plants growing in our garden and I wouldn’t dream of removing them. However, I enjoy growing it much more these days because I take simple precautions to stop them from taking over in other areas we don’t want them.
Thanks for the good advice.
I planted a new butterfly garden this year with several milkweed transplants in the middle. I have red and orange. I saw several monarchs in August, but no eggs or caterpillers.
I noticed that the number five plant and its description is missing above the milkweed photo. It looks like a simple oversight, but since milkweed is so important, I thought you might want to correct this . I would like to know if you are recommending a particular early variety, or just a common milkweed.
Hi Marty, thanks for the heads up. I edited this article a while back and must have somehow deleted #5. For spring monarchs, I highly recommend common milkweed for its large thick leaves:
Common Milkweed for Spring Monarchs
Also, you could have had eggs deposited in your garden. Unfortunately, only 1-5% of monarchs make it outdoors due to predation. I always raise some indoors to boost their survival rate.
I have so many larva that they have eaten all the milk weed I have planted, which is sizable, I have other foliage but don’t know if they will seek other food source. Can you suggest what other plants to move them onto? Will they eat the stalks if they consume all other leaves?
Yes, they will eat stalks if the leaves are gone. If they are large caterpillars they have also been reported to eat crunchy cucumbers (cut slices) and pumpkin. They won’t eat other plants in the garden, unfortunately.
If you cut back the stems of your milkweed when they are about 6 inches tall to 1 inch you will get 2 stems and twice as many leaves for the caterpillars as the plant continues to grow AND you can root the cuttings to make a later growing batch of milkweed for those hungry monarchs. I cut the cuttings into 2 new plants and place them in old pill bottles with some water covering about an inch of the stem out of direct sunlight inside and watch for roots to start. Once I got roots starting I put each rooting in a soil slurry that is more water than soil and allow it to become more soil than water by adding a bit more soil each week and after 4 weeks they are ready to join their parent plants as caterpillar hosts and I can cut them back to continue the new plant production all monarch season. Also once an established plant is eaten if you cut the stem back down to just above the ground a new plant will emerge and you can root that stem just like the spring stem cuttings so you will have a never ending new supply of milkweeds all season long, And if you fall thin the bed you will have many plants to share with your fellow gardeners so they too can help the monarchs. I share something called swamp milkweed cause it can grow in all types of soil from wet to dry AND it has pretty pink flower heads that folk who don’t like milkweed seem to love.
Every year I raise monarch butterflies, but last year (2013) did not find any caterpillars on the milkweed in my backyard. The years before when I released them they loved to drink nectar from BULL THISTLES.
I have been raising butterflies for 12 years and releasing of course, yet I continue to have some monarchs continue to die before going into a chrysalis.
any suggestions? Some of the same batch have already hatched.
Hi Christine, regular cage cleaning and rinsing of milkweed leaves usually eliminates these issues. If you brought them in as caterpillars, it’s possible they have been parasitized. Good luck with the rest of your monarchs!
I really enjoyed reading your Butterfly Book. I learned a lot from your book the facts you shared were very interesting and the illustrations were lovely. Great work!
Thanks Alejandro! I hope you use some ideas from the book to create an amazing butterfly garden. Good luck, Tony
I had many Monarchs on my butterfly bush and lantanas. Hope I can find milkweed in my nursery this year!
Hi Sonia, if you can’t find plants locally, there are decent, affordable online options. Check out these resource pages:
Butterfly Flower Resources
Hi Sonia, if your local nurseries carry milkweed they’re a great option. However, many don’t and worse yet, some grow with pesticides that can kill your caterpillars.
You can find options for both plants and seeds on our milkweed resources page:
http://www.monarchbutterflygarden.net/milkweed-plant-seed-resources/ Good luck!
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