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Although often considered a weed, common milkweed is a nectar source for many butterflies and leaves are an important food source for the monarch butterfly eggs and caterpillars. This aggressive, native spreader reaches 3 to 5 feet high and will grow in thickets, woodland borders, fields, fence rows, and areas along railroads and roadsides.

  • Family (English) Dogbane (formerly milkweed)
  • Family (botanic) Apocynaceae (formerly Asclepiadaceae)
  • Tree or plant type Perennial
  • Foliage Deciduous (seasonally loses leaves)
  • Native locale Chicago area, Illinois, North America
  • Size range Large plant (more than 24 inches)
  • Light exposure Full sun (6 hrs direct light daily), Partial sun / shade (4-6 hrs light daily)
  • Hardiness zones Zone 3, Zone 4, Zone 5 (Northern Illinois), Zone 6 (City of Chicago), Zone 7, Zone 8, Zone 9
  • Soil preference Moist, well-drained soil
  • Tolerances clay soil, Dry sites
  • Season of interest early summer, midsummer, late summer
  • Flower color and fragrance Pink, Purple
  • Shape or form Upright
  • Growth rate Fast

Native geographic location and habitat:

C-Value: 0. Found in a wide range of habitats.

Attracts birds & butterflies:

This plant is a caterpillar and larva host for the monarch butterfly. Creamy yellow eggs are laid on the underside of leaves. Common milkweed is also a nectar source for many species of butterflies. 

Leaf description:

The simple, oppositely arranged leaves are up to 8 inches long and 3½ inches wide, oblong in shape, and smooth along the margins. They are attached to a thick, stout stem. The upper leaf surface is pale-medium to dark green and hairless above, while the lower leaf surface is densely covered with short wooly hairs.

Flower description:

Extremely fragrant umbels of flower clusters, about 2 1/2 to 4 inches across emerge from the axils of the upper leaves. Flowers range in color from faded pink to reddish-purple. Each flower is 1/4 inch across. Flowers bloom for several weeks in July and August.

Fruit description:

The seed pods (follicles) are 3 to 4 inches long and covered with soft prickles and short wooly hairs. At maturity, each inflated seedpod splits to release numerous seeds that have large tufts of white hair, which help with wind dispersal of seed.

Plant Care:

Plant in full sun to part shade in average soil. Often found in meadows, roadsides, and along railroad right-of-way. It spreads by runners and reseeds easily. Common milkweed can be incorporated into mixed borders, but due to its aggressive nature, the plant may need to be thinned out on a regular basis. Avoid pesticide use around this plant to encourage butterflies to use it.

List of pests, diseases, and tolerances:

Milkweed bug and milkweed beetle are late season pests.

Sullivant’s milkweed (Asclepias sullivantii):

This rare, native milkweed is similar to common milkweed but has larger, showier, deeper pink flowers that reach 2 to 3 feet high and 18 to 36 inches wide. It is found in moist meadows, along rivers, and near woodlands. Its flowers attract butterflies and monarch butterflies. Difficult to find in nurseries.


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