Harvest and Storage of Milkweed Seeds
The timing of the collection of milkweed pods or seeds is critical. Mature pods are those that are within a day or two of opening. If you squeeze the pods and they don’t open easily, they usually do not contain mature brown seeds. Seeds well into the process of browning and hardening will germinate when planted the next season. Pale or white seeds should be not collected. Freshly collected pods dry should be dried in an open area with good air circulation. Once the pods are thoroughly dry, the seeds can be separated from the coma, or silk-like ballooning material, by hand. Separation of seeds can also be accomplished by stripping the seeds and coma from the pods into a paper bag. Shake the contents of the bag vigorously to separate the seeds from the coma and then cut a small hole in a corner of the bottom of the bag and shake out the seeds. Store dried seeds in a cool, dry place protected from mice and insects – a plastic bag (reclosable) or other container in the refrigerator works well.
The plants are ready to be transplanted when they are about 3-6 inches in height. Before transplanting, acclimate the plants to outdoor conditions for a few days by placing them in a sheltered location during the day and then bringing them indoors at night. The seedlings should be planted 6-24 inches apart depending on the species (check the back of your seed packets for information). Newly transplanted plants should be watered frequently. Add mulch around the seedlings soon after planting. The mulch holds in the moisture and minimizes the growth of competing weeds. The seedlings should be fertilized 2-3 times during the growing season if using water-soluble fertilizer or once a season if you utilize a granulated time-release formulation.
After the seeds are sown in the flats, cover each flat with a clear plastic cover or a plastic bag to keep the seeds from drying out while germinating. Then, place the flat under grow lights, in a warm sunny window, or in a greenhouse. Most seeds will germinate in 7-10 days if the flats are maintained at 75˚F. After the seeds have germinated, remove the plastic covering from the flats. Once the seedlings have emerged, the soil should be kept moist by watering the flat from the bottom. You can water from the bottom by placing the flat in a sink or a larger flat filled with 2 inches of water until moisture appears on the soil surface. The soil should be kept moist but some care is needed to keep the seedlings from getting too wet – such conditions contribute to fungal growth that can kill the young seedlings (“damping off”). Thinning (see below) can reduce damping off.
If you have a choice, light soils are better than those with heavy clay. Well-drained soils are generally best but there are some species, e.g. A. incarnata (swamp milkweed) and A. sullivantii, which do well in saturated conditions.
Where to Plant
Most milkweed species evolved in open areas where they were exposed to full sunlight and they will do best if they are planted in the sunniest areas of your gardens. A few species, such as A. purpurascens, appear to require partial shade.
Milkweed seeds can be planted in prepared beds outdoors or started indoors in flats. We recommend the latter approach since germination rates are generally higher indoors and it is easier to establish your milkweeds with transplanted seedlings that are well-rooted and therefore more resistant to weather extremes and pests.
When small seeds are sown, they are often mixed with sand or fine soil to have better seed distribution. However, this method does not completely prevent crowding of seedlings and thinning will be necessary. Thinning provides more space between plants, increasing the amount of light reaching the plants and the air circulation around them. Seedlings may need to be thinned several times beginning 1-2 weeks after germination. Without proper thinning, you will end up with weaker plants.
Three species of milkweed are good all-around choices for gardens in most regions of the country:
Photo by: Proven Winners.
Types of milkweed:
Height: 1 to 2 feet
Bloom time: May to July
Be aware that the toxic alkaloids in the sap of milkweed that help protect the monarchs from predators can cause eye and skin irritation and are poisonous to pets and other animals when ingested. Take the appropriate precautions and wear gloves, long sleeves, and long pants when working with these plants. See more about Common Poisonous Plants for Dogs & Cats.
Asclepias viridis (green milkweed)