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.
Germinating, Growing and Transplanting
Milkweed seedlings can be started indoors in a greenhouse or under artificial lighting and then transplanted outdoors after the average date of last frost. If seeds are started indoors, allow 4-8 weeks growing time before transplanting. Plastic flats can be used to start the seeds. Fill the flats with a soil mix suitable for seedlings (most potting mixes are), thoroughly soak the soil, and let the excess water drain. Sow the seeds by scattering them on the soil surface 1/4-1/2 inch apart, and then cover with about 1/4 inch of additional soil mix. Gently mist the soil surface with water to dampen the additional soil mix that has been added. In an effort to improve germination rates, many gardeners place the seeds in packets made from paper towels and soak them in warm water for 24 hours prior to planting. This method seems to work especially well for seeds of species that require stratification.
A smooth, clump-free, weeded soil bed will virtually guarantee a successful start for germination and seedling establishment. If vegetation exists in the future habitat location, it can be removed by using a tiller or by hoeing the area. To reduce clumping, do not work the soil when it is wet. The soil should be worked to a fine consistency to ensure good soil to seed contact.
Growing Milkweeds from Cuttings
All milkweeds are perennials and some can be grown from cuttings. Cuttings provide a way producing new plants in a relatively short time and it avoids some of the difficulties of starting plants from seeds. To start cuttings, cut the stems underwater, then coat the bottom of the stem with a strong rooting hormone. The stems should be placed in sand, vermiculite, or potting soil that is kept continuously moist. Cuttings can usually be transplanted in 6-10 weeks. Survival is best when cuttings are made from green stems (1/3 inch diameter) obtained from plants fertilized two weeks earlier.
Seeds of most temperate plants need to be stratified, which is a fancy way of saying that they need cold treatment. To stratify seeds, place them in cold, moist potting soil (sterilized soil is best but is not required) in a dark place for several weeks or months. Since most people prefer not to place potting soil in their refrigerators, an alternative is to place the seeds between moist paper towels in a plastic bag. This procedure works well, in part because there are fewer fungi and bacteria available to attack the seeds. After a stratification period of 3-6 weeks, the seeds can be planted in warm (70˚F), moist soil. Without stratification, the percentage of seeds that germinate is usually low. Seeds from the tropical milkweed, Asclepias curassavica (and other tropical milkweed species) do not require this treatment. “Shocking” seeds that have been refrigerated by soaking them in warm water for 24 hours also seems to improve germination rates.
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.
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.
Method 2: In Fall–Direct sowing into a prepared garden plot
Cons: The added time in caring for plants in containers, plus the transplanting time in the early summer.
This method is almost identical to Method 2, except you will sow the seeds in early spring, when night time temperatures are still in the 30s. The seeds can be sown later, though you might see decreased germination as the weather warms.
Method 1: Fall-sowing in containers
There are 2 methods, each can be done in the the fall or in the spring.
As you might notice, the seeds from the milkweed flower disperse in the fall. Attached to pappi, the silky threads that catch the wind, they disperse from the pods and travel in the wind before landing on the ground. The winter temperatures, snow, and freeze-thaw cycle “plant” the milkweed, and break the seed down enough to allow it to germinate in the spring.
How to start: Fill 4-6″ plastic pots with a well-drained potting mix. Sow 5-10 seeds per pot, spacing them evenly, about 1/4 inch deep. Press in, and water well. Place the pots outdoors, on a porch or at the side of a house is ideal, and leave them there to weather the winter. In the spring, as the temperatures warm, the pots should be moved into full sun to a protected spot and allowed to germinate.