8 Tips to (Successfully) Transplant Milkweed…with Taproots!
A few decades ago (well before the internet age had propelled the sharing of great gardening ideas) many gardeners believed that transplanting native milkweed was impossible.
Milkweed species like A. incarnata and non-native A. curassavica are easy to transplant because they don’t have a long central taproot growing deep beneath the soil.
The species that gardeners have problems transplanting are the varieties that do have these tap roots….tapped out species include Asclepias syriaca (common milkweed), Asclepias tuberosa (butterfly weed), and most other milkweed varieties native to the US and Canada. Some non-native varieties, like G. fruticosus (swan milkweed) also have them.
There are 3 main reasons we transplant milkweed:
- milkweed plants are spaced too close together
- a milkweed variety seems unhappy in its current growing conditions
- experimentation- we have been split-testing milkweed varieties in different microclimates of our yard, to see what growing conditions they prefer
While transplanting native milkweed isn’t rocket science, many have tried and failed because their plants have been unnecessarily stressed.
Try these simple tips, and join the growing numbers of gardeners who are successfully transplanting milkweed in their yards and butterfly gardens.
8 Tips for Successfully Transplanting Milkweed
1. Before transplanting wild milkweed, be sure it’s really milkweed
I have received numerous emails over the past few years from gardeners wondering why their milkweed isn’t attracting monarchs. After seeing photos the problem was clear…they had transplanted wild milkweed that wasn’t milkweed!
Mimics like dogbane and smartweed have been fool’s gold in the search for hidden milkweed treasure. If you’re not sure, it’s much easier to identify milkweed once the flowers start blooming.
Unless you’re transplanting from a place where milkweed gets mowed, please reconsider taking habitat away from the monarchs, that they desperately need! If you can’t find seeds or plants locally, check out the many options you have for buying online:
25+ Milkweed Varieties- Seeds and Plants
2. Amend the soil if needed
We typically add compost to areas we are transplanting milkweed. It’s better to do this before planting because you can mix it into the soil easier.
You can find this for a good price at local garden centers or big box stores.
3. Practice First!
Like anything you do in life, you’ll get better after you transplant milkweed a couple times to get a good feel for it. If you have ten plants you’re going to move, start with two to see if you can keep those alive. Then proceed with the rest…
4a. Transplant in early spring
When you see your returning milkweed plants starting to pop their little heads through the soil that is prime time to transplant:
More growth and foliage on the plant will only make transplanting more stressful. Cooler spring temps will also help the plant to acclimate quickly to its new environment.
4b. Transplant in late summer and early fall
If you’ve read other posts on this blog, you’ll know I’m a big fan of fall planting. In Minnesota, we typically fall plant and transplant from mid-September to mid-October. This give the roots plenty of time to get acclimated before the ground freezes.
The milkweed foliage should be about fried when you transplant at the point in the season, and you can cut the plant back to about a foot…leaves a nice marker for where the plant should emerge next season.
Later, you can apply some leaf mulch insurance to protect the roots over winter.
5. Dig deep to get the entire tap root
The more of the root system you get, the likelier your transplant will be successful. I have lopped off a tiny bit of taproot and had plants survive, but the more you can get the better.
Dig around all four sides of the plant before attempting to lift it from the ground. Dig about 4″ out from each side to avoid cutting the taproot.
We use a transplanting spade to get underneath taproots, which has worked well for us.
6. If you don’t get the entire rhizome, transplant the remaining piece horizontally to multiply your plants. Good candidates should be a few inches long with several nodules on it. Community member Mary says this method yields a 95% success rate in her northern California garden.
7. Start Small, Win Big
It’s much easier to get the entire tap root when digging up a first or second year plant. If your milkweed is more mature, you’ll need to dig deeper for success.
8. Keep soil moist after transplant
For the next couple weeks post-transplant, make sure the soil stays sufficiently moist to help the plants acclimate to their new homes and encourage root growth.
With spring transplants, you can start lightly fertilizing after the plant starts putting out new growth.
9. Cut back stalks/foliage to increase survival rate if transplanting mid-season
This is a judgement call, and depends on the size of the plant and weather conditions. if you’re going to cut back, better to do it right away. If you’re transplanting a large plant, which is not advisable mid-season, cutting back is probably a good idea.
If you want to try a midseason transplant without sacrificing stems and foliage, community member Paula B. says she has had success using Superthrive to give plants extra nutrients to help them through the transition. More info and reviews here.
Community member David recommends another transplanting solution that has also received high marks: Quickstart Transplanting Solution info and reviews
I need to know if and what kind of fertilizer I can put on some common milkweed plants that I transplanted to my backyard from a spot I found by a country road. They would of been mowed down soon. Been watering all 8 and 2 are still drooping a little.
Hi Wayne, you can always apply:
Slow Release Fertilizer
I have 30 milkweed plants of all sizes and when I transplant them I put them in small pots 1st with organic soil and put root grow on their first watering . I let them get well rooted and then I plant them in my gardens .I never move plants with eggs or monarch caterpillars so I do not disturb the process of their growth . I had 45 sucessful hatchings last year this year I am hoping for 150 .
I have 40 to 50 common milkweed growing in an area that is normally thick with Indian Grass. I dug one plant, like you suggested, and planted it in what will be our Butterfly Garden. How long should I wait to see if this plant made the move? All the milkweed plants are 4 to 8 inches high now.
Hi Dick, usually you should be able to tell within a few days to a week…transplanting when the returning plants are small is best for a high success rate…good luck!
What great timing! Was walking the dog and said to myself, this sure looks like milkweed. Broke off a leaf and it was milky. Dug it up and brought it home and sure enough it’s a native species. And I was surprised how different the roots were from tropical. I’m hoping they take because I’d like more variety. And yes, pulled it from an area that gets mowed.
Once again I am here looking for answers. Today I decided to go and dig up some Common Milkweed from an area that keeps getting mowed down last time was three weeks ago – a week after I found a Monarch egg on a patch of milkweed. Took the leaf it was on and raised a beautiful female at home indoors, the butterfly was set free on Saturday. She had a good send off as about ten people were there so I took the opportunity to do have my resources available to answer questions and explain the process of egg to butterfly and stress the plight of Monarchs. (and other pollinators)
My question was: can Common Milkweed from a field be transplanted into a garden? Think I found the answer and feel I not only saved a Monarch but now Common Milkweed too 😀
Common milkweed is invasive, it’s best to plant in an area where it has plenty of room to spread because it will quickly take over your garden. Bit of helpful advice from someone who’s been there. ?
Hi Penny, yes, it can be invasive, but it’s an essential host plant for monarchs in our northern region. We actually pull a lot of it in the spring, and cut off most seed pods in the fall to keep it in check. Still, it does spread by underground rhizomes so your idea is a good one too.
We have just bought a property with 2.5 acres so I am joining in on planting milkweed. There’s a lot growing already which I entend to save. There are some growing in spots that will have to be moved. I tried a couple and they didn’t do well. Hoping they will come back next year. This article was very helpful! Thanks
How much added dirt or not-composted new wood chips can I place around existing milkweed plants, mostly butterfly 2 to 4 yrs old, also common, 2nd season swamp that bloomed last year, and a 2nd season purple that didn’t bloom last year? Sort of turning this spot into a raised bed. thanks
Hi Joe, since more shoots come up each season, any milkweed I have mulched has a pretty light coating…just enough to deter weed seedlings
I have a thriving butterfly garden. Unfortunately my neighbors have decided to build a wall between our properties. What are the chances of saving the plants and multiple monarch caterpillars currently on the plants, approximately 20 of them that I can see. The plants are probably about 10 years old.
try raising the caterpillars on stem cuttings indoors:
Feeding caterpillars with stem cuttings
The best time for transplanting is in early spring when the plants are just coming back. If larger transplants look stressed, you can always cut them back…good luck!
I have a few young milkweeds that are about 1-2′ tall. The leaves have mostly been eaten and we have at least 4 caterpillars on the plants. They are growing out from under our house and I’d really like to give them a better spot. Is it safe to transplant them now while it is still cool? We are in northern Florida and it will start warming up very soon. Thanks for your help.
Hi Debra, winter is a great time for planting/transplanting in Florida (as long as you don’t have a hard frost/freeze) as the plants should be less stressed than they would be in the sweltering summer heat. good luck!
So, is it typical that milkweed will get a bit droopy post-transplant, or is this a sign that the plants were too stressed and will not make it?
Hi Emily, this is a tough time for planting milkweed in most regions. If it looks too stressed you can try cutting back some of the stems and foliage so the plants can put more energy into establishing roots. good luck!
Hi Tony. I have another question about transplanting Common Milkweed. I have some plants literally growing and coming out of ground right next to each other. Is there any way to safely transplant one without damaging it or both plants by my bothering them? I was just curious. They aren’t in the way and both grow fine so if it’s just better to leave them alone, I can do that. Thanks.
Hi Tony! Thanks for this helpful article. I just dug up 2 Common Milkweed plants that were growing right in the middle of one of our paths in my field. We keep the paths mowed and walk on them so I wanted to save these milkweed plants.I put them in pots and watered them for now. I am going to give them to a neighbor interested in trying to plant milkweed. I find your site very informative so I figured there was probably an article on how to do this here. I didn’t know how to do this and followed your steps and safely got the plants out. Oh, I have some Common Milkweed seeds left from fall 2014 if anyone would like some. All the seeds from this past fall I stripped by hand and donated a total of about 1 gallon each of seeds to two different Monarch Butterfly organizations. I’m happy to give away seeds from pods this fall also. Thanks.
Hi Jaremy, I’m glad you were able to save and transplant more milkweed for your neighbor. If you want to donate seeds, Monarch Watch is probably your best option, but thanks for the offer!
Hi Tony! Yes, Monarch Watch is a good place to donate seed. You can donate the dried whole seed pods to them and the can separate the seeds with their seed separator. Or you can separate the seeds yourself and send to them also. I mentioned before that I undertook the project of separating all the seeds from the pods collected this past fall in my milkweed patches. I thought it was a way I could contribute in the long run to help Monarch Butterflies. It took forever, a little at a time. I donated about a gallon of Common Milkweed seeds to Save Our Monarchs (in MN) and I donated about a gallon of seeds to LIveMonarch (in FL). LiveMonarch has more of a need for Northern variety seeds since they can’t grow Common Milkweed down there. Like Monarch Watch, you can buy seed from these 2 organizations but they also give out seeds for free if you send them a self-addressed envelope. See their websites for details.
I have spent a small fortune on starting milkweed from seeds. I have a few straggly sprouts. My neighbor has done nothing and has a flourishing crop. I’m growing Narrowleaf Milkweed in California. Should I plant my seeds outside now?
Hi Nancy, I don’t have experience planting narrowleaf milkweed or planting in your region, but I would plant seeds before the summer heat arrives and makes it difficult for small seedlings to survive…good luck!
I have a question, concerning Asclepias Tuberosa. It is native here in MS where I live. However, we don’t seem to have much of it in my area. I did find a heavily weedy area where there are several of them growing. How deep should I dig in order to get the entire tap root. I’ve transplanted some mature plants that were in bloom before and placed them in pots, but when they came back the next year, they looked like small first year plants and haven’t bloomed at all. I recently read the comments about getting them in early spring, but given the location of where they are, it’s hard to see the new plants among all the grass. I’d like to successfully transplant as many of these as possible from their current location, due to the land being up for sale. All in a nut shell, what are the absolute best and fool proof methods for successfully transplanting this specific milkweed species? Also, I know heat is bad for transplanting. We have a very humid environment here in MS and our springs generally feel like summer. Any help would be appreciated.
Hi Preston, I can’t tell you how deep to dig because we don’t know how long the taproots are for the particular plants. Using a long spade (as discussed in the post) I have not had any problems transplanting tuberosa. All I can tell you for sure, is that it’s best to do earlier in the season because it’s less stressful for the plants. The other optimal transplanting period is late summer or early fall when the plant is done for the season. This is our first returning perennial this season, which was transplanted last fall:
Asclepias Speciosa Transplanted Fall 2015
Thanks for your help. For some reason, I didn’t even think to try to transplant then in early spring. I generally wait until they’re in bloom, so that I know which ones are mature enough to bloom. Those are the ones I try to get. But I will definitely start transplanting in early spring. Thanks again for your help.
Hi. I just today transplanted an Asclepias syriaca (Common Milkweed), capturing most of its taproot and about 10 ft. of rhizomes (!!!). I found this plant in a vacant lot nearby that will be under the developer’s steamroller in the spring, so figured I would endeavour to save the milkweed before it just gets ripped out or plowed over.
My question is this – it’s November 5th and unseasonably warm here in southwestern Pennsylvania, so for how long and how frequently should I water the soil in which the plant & its epic rhizome are now located?
Also, should I even bother to plant milkweed seeds now that I grabbed such a hulking example of the plant? The stalk was still connected to the roots, and it was close to five feet tall. One of its clone-stalks had recently broken off, it seemed, and still had a burst seed pod attached, mostly full of seeds.
Thanks for your time.
Hi Joe, that’s a huge taproot…congrats on getting it out in one piece! I would water ever 2-3 days until you have to bring the hose in for the winter. Just make sure the soil doesn’t dry out. I would also plant seeds in case the plant dies…it’s easy to pull seedlings if you don’t have room for them, or you could even relocated them to a better spot. good luck!
Hi Tony – thanks for the quick reply (most appreciated!)! I’ll tell you what – it wasn’t easy to dig out that root system! (especially since it was growing in a broken-up asphalt parking lot lol) I’m really excited to have made the effort and will keep a close eye on the soil to ensure it doesn’t dry out. I’ll also go ahead and plant those seeds, since you’re right – no big deal to sort ’em out if there’s a lot of germination.
I’ll keep you posted, and thanks again for the speedy reply. Cheers
Tony, just wanted to circle back around and let you know that the transplant you advised me on last year was a success! I have three plants coming up from the very long taproot I transplanted last fall, and two more stems coming up in a different location from a shorter root network that I transplanted at the same time. Cheers!
congrats Joe…I hope you and the monarchs enjoy your transplants!
Tony, another 12mos and happy to report that the main Milkweed taproot & connectors I transplanted in Nov 2015 continues to thrive and again returned three large plants this year, two of which are mature enough to be about to flower.
As an aside, the demolition site from which I rescued the MW has been rebuilt as a rather monstrous assisted living facility (it takes up almost all of the land so much green-space was lost). However, to their credit, the developers have planted a bunch of evergreen trees, which will be great for our nascent Red Squirrel population, and they’ve included native wildflowers in the landscaping as opposed to using just bland ornamental stuff.
I probably shouldn’t admit this here, but I’ve been thinking of sneaking onto the grounds early in the morning and surreptitiously planting all of my remaining milkweed seeds there, since they only recently completed landscaping and there’s significant open space where milkweed sprouts might fight for life 😉
Swamp milkweed is super easy to transplant and they can be easily overwintered in pots in the midwest. I have found Purple Milkweed A. Purpurascens easy to transplant as it doesn’t have a super long taproot and the flowers are the crown jewels of the milkweed family just amazing in bud and in full bloom. I have also had some success moving common milkweed. It has been so wet here in Indiana that the milkweed would even like some drying out days. Have seen just one adult Monarch this season so far. Glad to hear that you have had multiples to release. Brian
Thanks for sharing your experience Brian. For swamp milkweed, I just leave some extra first/second year plants in the garden, then pot the plants when they start to come back in spring. Keep your eyes peeled Brian, starting to see a lot more monarch activity here…hopefully some of that will spread east!
Hi Tony–Great article; thanks! I’ve been worried about transplanting my full-size A. curassavica and tuberosa from the garden plot so I can support feeding cats with potted plants protected indoors.
What size pots would you recommend using for an A. curassavica plant to give it enough room to keep growing to full size? What is a good size pot for an Asclepias plant species with a long taproot? –Andrea
Thanks Andrea, we typically use 12″ pots for tropical and that size has worked well for us. You might want to try a bigger container for the tuberosa to accommodate the tap root.
You can also take stem cuttings if you don’t want to dig up your plants. Good luck!
I have several pots of A. Tuberosa, grown from cuttings, which I thought I intended to plant in the ground, but because of the drought conditions here in California, and because the plants are doing so well in their pots, I’m reluctant to move them. Can tuberosa survive just living in the pots, or should I go ahead an plant them?
They are great in containers. I keep a couple in 8 ” pots on my deck and winter over in my basement.
Milkweed cuttings are easily water rooted and then transplanted in soil amended with compost.
Hi Andrea, we also propagate (tropical) milkweed with cuttings and it works well to start new plants.
Grow Tropical Milkweed from Cuttings
The edges of the leaves of my swamp milkweed are purple. The flowers are blooming nicely and I don’t see any aphids…yet. What could be wrong with the plant? Are the leaves healthy enough to feed to the “cats”. Another little milkweed a distance away from the other one also has purple edged leaves. Last year, the leaves were green ….but covered with aphids (which were driving me crazy).
Hi Mary, sometimes milkweed leaves get fungi, typically when conditions are moist. Sometimes the leaves will also turn yellow and fall off. I remove the leaves every once in a while, but it is not a major concern. Typically, caterpillars move to healthier leaves on their own. All I would suggest is watering a little less and removing/discarding affected leaves. Your plants should be fine.
If transplanting established Common Milkweed (A. syriaca), carefully dig all around the plant to see if there are any large rhizomes because they can be transplanted too. I do my transplanting in the fall and have had good success.
I also discovered a good way to get free milkweed is to accidentally not dig up all of the tap root/rhizomes. I transplanted some Common Milkweed that had ‘volunteered’ themselves in the veggy garden. In the spring, not only did the milkweed come back up in their original spots, but more plants came up than last year.
Thanks for sharing your experience Steve…I look forward to fall planting too!
Does it make s difference if I use horse manure instead of cow manure?
that works too Donna! What’s most important is adding milkweed-supporting nutrients to the soil.
Be careful of too much cow manure or using it over and over in the same space. Cow manure is notorious for its high salt content. Horse, sheep, and goat manures are much “sweeter”, and therefor much better for use.
Thanks for your comment. I was not aware this was an issue. We have also used mushroom compost in our gardens. I will try switching things up next season.
QUESTION ? can I successfully feed birds and have butterflies ??
I saw a bird with butterfly in beak !!
Hi Sarah, it hasn’t been an issue in our northern region. We have a bird feeder and host many birds in our yard too.
Monarchs aren’y typically a favorite bird-delicacy because of the foul taste they acquire from eating milkweed.
It’s the cycle of life. I have a nearby Cooper’s Hawk that has carried away a number of goldfinches and doves from my yard.
Excellent, practical info on this transplanting. Here in Calif with our severe drought, I’ve transplanted into appropriate size pots so I can be sure to keep them wet during the transplant period.
Hi Milli, drought adds a whole new issue to transplanting. I’m glad keeping in containers is working well until the weather cooperates…good luck!
I have found through the years that using Super Thrive when transplanting promotes success.
Thanks Paula, I was checking out some reviews of this…looks like the real deal!
Tony, Super Thrive really does help. It’s not miracle drug insurance against poor transplanting technique, but it does stimulate faster and healthier root growth via B complex vitamins.
Thanks again for sharing your experience…much appreciated!
A cheaper and in my opinion better alternative is Upstart or QuickStart. I have used SuperThrive as well. Some praise it. 🙂 Unfortunately no one knows for sure what exactly is in it. But they have wonderful marketing hype and in the old days, it was quite something. The inventor died last year at 100. The Start products have a lot of B Vitamins. I use it in all my transplants.
This sounds like another good option…thanks for posting David!
I guess ignorance is bliss! I have been pulling up all sizes of milkweed plants and putting them in small pots …up to 4 in a pot! I don’t have much luck capturing and successfully hatching the eggs so I check to see if there are eggs on a leaf and into the pot it goes. I use shorter pots now so they fit in my net enclosures and have room to grow. I have tons of milkweed seeds and plant those as well. Hope this is helpful.
Hi Julie, not sure which species you are transplanting, but if you cut long taproots the plants often die. Swamp milkweed is an exception because it doesn’t have a taproot. Hope you are having a wonderful season!
What is the best type of fertilizer to use on milkweed?
Hi Kristi, a good all purpose fertilizer or slow release fertilizer works well for milkweed. I’ve used organic fertilizers and brands like miracle gro. They all work, and I’ve never had any issues with our monarchs due to fertilizers.
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