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9 Irresistible Raleigh, NC Milkweeds (Asclepias spp.) to Grow for Butterflies

There are nine species of milkweeds (Asclepias spp.) that are native to the Raleigh, NC area and can be grown for Monarchs and other butterflies such as Queen and Soldier butterflies. The Monarch butterfly in particular uses the cardenolides found in the milky sap of milkweeds to give an unpleasant taste to predators. These plants are also an important nectar source to all insects visiting your garden. Seeds for a number of these native Raleigh milkweeds can be found in the McMullen House garden shop.

Location of the Raleigh, North Carolina Metro Area

Map of the state of North Carolina showing the Research Triangle region.
Raleigh-Durham-Cary_CSA.png: User:Nyttendderivative work: Jayron32, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The Raleigh, NC Metro area or Triangle Area is colored in green and includes the counties of Wake, Durham, and Orange Counties. The species covered in this post grow in all parts of the Triangle Area.

USDA Plant Hardiness Zones in Raleigh, North Carolina

USDA plant hardiness zone map by USDA for the state of North Carolina in the United States.
2023 USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map for North Carolina — USDA Public Domain

The Raleigh, North Carolina Metro area is located in Zone 8a. When selecting plants you will want to get those that can handle temperatures as cold as +10F to be sure they will survive.

Butterflies in Raleigh that are Hosted by Milkweeds (Asclepias spp.)

Monarch butterfly on green flower.
Green Flower with Monarch Butterfly (Danaus plexippus) — U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Queen Butterfly on Twig.
Queen Butterfly (Danaus gilippus) — Korall, CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Monarch Butterfly (Danaus plexippus)

The Monarch Butterfly is one of the most iconic butterflies in North America and is a bellweather of the environment. Having a distinctive orange color with black stripes, this butterfly has a wingspan of 3 in (7.6 cm) to 5 in (12.7 cm). The monarch butterfly ingests the toxic cardenolides of the milkweed plants, making it distasteful to predators. It can have several broods in a year and is known for its migrations to Mexico each year. However, some populations in the south, southern California, Arizona, and Florida that do not migrate and breed year-round (Urguhart, et al 1968).

Queen Butterfly (Danaus gilippus)

The Queen Butterfly is similar to the Monarch Butterfly but is more of a solid orange in color and has a brownish hue. When the wings are closed it looks very similar and is hard to tell apart. It is smaller than the Monarch having a wingspan of 2.5 in (6.4 cm) to 4 in (10.2 cm). The Queen Butterfly is a mimic of the monarch, but it also ingests the cardenolides from the milkweed. In the south this butterfly can breed year-round, but in the north it breeds from April to November. This species, unlike the monarch does not migrate.

List of Milkweeds that are Native or Nearly Native in the Raleigh, NC Area

1. Clasping Milkweed (Asclepias amplexicaulis), a Milkweed for Sandy Soils

Clasping Milkweed (Asclepias amplexicaulis): Clasping milkweed grows in most of North Carolina except for the northwest (Kartesz 2023). In the wild, clasping milkweed grows in dry woodlands, prairies, meadows, and roadsides that have sandy or gravelly soil. This milkweed grows up to 3 feet tall and has greenish-pink, red, brown, to purple flowers that bloom from March to September.

In your Raleigh, NC butterfly garden, this milkweed is hardy in zones 3-9 and requires full sun to part-shade and moist to dry sandy soils. Seeds of clasping milkweed can be purchased in the McMullen House Bed & Breakfast Garden Shop.

Plant of clasping milkweed (Asclepias amplexicaulis) with pink flowers in a wooded area.
Clasping Milkweed (Asclepias amplexicaulis) — Mason Brock (Masebrock), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Pinkish flowers of clasping milkweed (Asclepias amplexicaulis) in a field, a Raleigh milkweed.
Flowers of Clasping Milkweed (Asclepias amplexicaulis) — cassi saari, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Reddish-pink flowers of clasping milkweed (Asclepias amplexicaulis) in a field.
Flowers of Clasping Milkweed (Asclepias amplexicaulis) — Fritz Flohr Reynolds, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

2. Sandhill Milkweed (Asclepias humistrata), a Milkweed for Sandy Soil

Sandhill Milkweed (Ascelpias humistrata): Sandhill milkweed is native mainly to the eastern Piedmont and Coastal Plain in the southeastern counties of North Carolina (Kartesz 2015). A few isolated occurrences are located in the middle Piedmont. In the wild, sandhill milkweed grows, as the name suggests, on sandhills, but it also can found in dry oak woods, pine barrens, as well as roadsides. Growing from 1 to 3 feet tall, the flowers are white, pink, or purple and bloom from April to July.

In your Raleigh butterfly garden, this milkweed is hardy in zones 8-9 and requires full sun and mesic to dry sandy soil. In a garden it can also handle part-shade conditions. This plant is native just to the south of Raleigh and can survive in Raleigh’s climate. Seeds for sandhill milkweed can be purchased in the McMullen House Bed & Breakfast Garden Shop.

Whitish-pink flowers of sandhill milkweed (Asclepias humistrata).
Plant of Sandhill Milkweed — “Asclepias humistrata Walter” by Mark T. Strong and Carol L. Kelloff is marked with CC0 1.0.
Plant of sandhill milkweed (Asclepias humistrata) in a field.
Plant of Sandhill Milkweed with White Flowers — Asclepias humistrata Walter observed in United States of America by nat_t (licensed under CC0 1.0)
Plant of sandhill milkweed (Asclepias humistrata) in a wooded area.
Plant of Sandhill Milkweed — “Asclepias humistrata Walter” by Mark T. Strong and Carol L. Kelloff is marked with CC0 1.0.

3. Swamp Milkweed (Asclepias incarnata), a Milkweed for Moist Soils

Swamp Milkweed (Asclepias incarnata): Swamp milkweed has two subspecies, ssp. incarnata and ssp. pulchra. Only ssp. pulchra is found in the mountains (western), Piedmont (central), and the northern Coastal Plain (Kartesz 2015) of North Carolina including Raleigh. Like the name suggests swamp milkweed grows in wet places such as the shores of streams, lakes, ponds, and other wetlands. However, as a landscape plant it can exist in drier places. The flowers are variable and are generally a pink to red color, but there is also a white cultivar (pictured below).

In your Raleigh butterfly garden, subsp. pulchra is hardy in zones 4-9 and requires full sun to partial-shade and well-drained soil. Seeds of swamp milkweed can be purchased in the McMullen House Bed & Breakfast Garden Shop.

Pink flowers of swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) from Pennsylvania.
Flowers of Swamp Milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) — Cbaile19, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons
Swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) 'Ice Ballet' cultivar.
‘Ice Ballet’ cultivar of Swamp Milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) — Photo by and (c)2009 Derek Ramsey (Ram-Man), GFDL 1.2, via Wikimedia Commons
Follicles (fruits) of swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) in a garden.
“Swamp milkweed, rose milkweed, Asclepias incarnata, new England native garden” by sapienssolutions is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

4. Red Milkweed (Asclepias rubra), a Milkweed for Moist to Wet Soils

Red Milkweed (Asclepias rubra): Red milkweed is located mainly in the eastern Piedmont and Coastal Plain of North Carolina (Kartesz 2015) with one disjunct occurrence in the western Piedmont. In the wild, red milkweed grows in wet open areas such as meadows, bogs, and pine barrens. Growing from 1 to 3 feet tall, the flowers range from pink, purple, red, lavender in color and bloom from May to August.

In your Raleigh butterfly garden, this milkweed is hardy in zones 6-9 and it prefers places where it can enjoy full sun or part-shade and wet organic soils.

Close-up of pink flowers of red milkweed (Asclepias rubra).
Flowers of Red Milkweed (Asclepias rubra) — peganum from Small Dole, England, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Plant of red milkweed (Asclepias rubra) at the edge of woods.
Red Milkweed (Asclepias rubra) — peganum from Henfield, England, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Plant of red milkweed (Asclepias rubra).
Plant of Red Milkweed — “Asclepias rubra” by lauramorganclark is licensed under CC BY 4.0.

5. Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca), a Milkweed for all Soils

Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca): Common milkweed is located throughout North Carolina, except for the southeast (Kartesz 2015). In the wild, common milkweed grows in open areas such as fields, pastures, and roadsides, where it can receive full sun. Growing up to 6 feet tall, it is a tall milkweed having flowers ranging from pink, greenish-purple, greenish-white, to white and bloom from June to August.

In your Raleigh butterfly garden, this milkweed is hardy in zones 3-9 and requires full sun to part-shade and any type of soil. As the name implies, this is one of the most common and important milkweed species for the Monarch butterfly. Seeds of common milkweed can be purchased in the McMullen House Bed & Breakfast Garden Shop.

Flowers of Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca), a North Carolina milkweed.
Pink Flowers of Common Milkweed in McMullen House Garden — Robert Coxe, Image
Plant of common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) with pink flowers.
Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) — Cbaile19, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons
Common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) with eastern tiger swallowtail.
Eastern Tiger Swallowtail on Common Milkweed — Author Image

6. Butterfly Weed (Asclepias tuberosa), a Milkweed for all Soils

Butterfly Weed (Asclepias tuberosa): Butterfly weed is one of the most common for butterfly gardeners on the east coast of the United States. In Raleigh, only subspecies tuberosa is present and essentially occurs throughout the state (Kartesz 2015). In the wild, this milkweed grows in open areas with full sun such as fields, roadsides, and open woods. Growing from 1 to 3 feet tall, it has characteristically orange flowers that bloom throughout the summer and sometimes into the autumn.

In your Raleigh butterfly garden, this milkweed is hardy from zones 3-9 and requires full sun in any type of soil condition. This is one of two milkweeds in North America that does not have a milky sap. Seeds of butterfly weed can be purchased in the McMullen House Bed & Breakfast Garden Shop.

Orange flowers of butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa).
Butterfly Weed with Orange Flowers — Robert Coxe, Image
Monarch butterfly on butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa).
Butterfly Weed with Monarch Butterfly — U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service – Northeast Region, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Follicles of butterfly weed showing seeds.
Butterfly Weed Follicles — User:SB_Johnny, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

7. Red-ring Milkweed (Asclepias variegata), a Milkweed for Dry Sandy Soils

Red-Ring Milkweed (Asclepias variegata): Red-ring milkweed is located throughout North Carolina (Kartesz 2015). In the wild, red-ring milkweed grows in open disturbed areas such as thickets and roadsides. Growing 1 to 4 feet tall, it has white colored flowers with a ring of purple to red that bloom from May to July.

In your Raleigh butterfly garden, this milkweed is hardy in zones 3-9 and prefers part-sun to light-shade and dry sandy or rocky soils. Seeds of red-ring milkweed can be purchased in the McMullen House Bed & Breakfast Garden Shop.

Close-up of white flowers of red ring milkweed (Asclepias variegata).
Flowers of Red-ring Milkweed (Asclepias variegata) — Masebrock, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Plant of red ring milkweed (Asclepias variegata) in a wooded area.
Red Ring Milkweed — “Asclepias variegata” by coatlicue is marked with CC0 1.0.
White flower clusters of red ring milkweed (Asclepias variegata).
Close-up of White Flowers — “Asclepias variegata” by coatlicue is marked with CC0 1.0.

8. Whorled Milkweed (Asclepias verticillata), a Milkweed for Medium to Dry Soil

Whorled Milkweed (Asclepias verticillata): Whorled milkweed is located in the Piedmont and mountain regions of North Carolina (Kartesz 2015). In the wild, whorled milkweed grows in open areas such as meadows and fields, where it can take advantage of full sun. Growing from 1 to 3 feet tall, it has green to white flowers that bloom from May to September.

In your Raleigh butterfly garden, this milkweed is hardy in zones 3-9 and requires full sun to part-shade with medium to dry soil. Seeds of whorled milkweed can be purchased at the McMullen House Bed & Breakfast Garden Shop.

Close-up of white flowers of whorled milkweed (Asclepias verticillata).
Flowers of Whorled Milkweed (Asclepias verticillata) — Joshua Mayer (wackybadger), CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Leaves of whorled milkweed (Asclepias verticillata).
Whorled Milkweed (Asclepias verticillata) Leaves — Frank Mayfield (gmayfield10), CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons
White flowers of whorled milkweed (Asclepias verticillata) in an open area.
Flowers of Whorled Milkweed (Asclepias verticillata) — Mason Brock (Masebrock), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

9. Green Comet Milkweed (Asclepias viridiflora), a Milkweed for Medium to Dry Sandy Soils

Green Comet Milkweed (Asclepias viridiflora): Green comet milkweed is located generally in the central (Piedmont) and northeastern Coastal Plain of North Carolina (Kartesz 2015). In the wild, green comet milkweed grows in open areas such as meadows and field where there is full sun. Growing up to 3 feet tall, it has flowers, which bloom from June to August, that begin as a green color but age to become yellow with a purple tinge.

In your Raleigh butterfly garden, this milkweed is hardy in zones 3-9 and requires full sun to part-shade with medium to dry sandy soil. Seeds of green comet milkweed can be purchased at the McMullen House Bed & Breakfast Garden Shop.

Green flower cluster of green comet milkweed (Asclepias viridiflora).
Flowers of Green Comet Milkweed — Patrick Alexander from Las Cruces, NM, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons
Plant of green comet milkweed (Asclepias viridiflora).
Green Comet Milkweed (Asclepias viridiflora) — Matt Lavin from Bozeman, Montana, USA, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Leaves of green comet milkweed (Asclepias viridiflora).
Leaves of Green Comet Milkweed — Patrick Alexander from Las Cruces, NM, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

When selecting your North Carolina milkweed, be sure to make sure that it grows in your zone and habitat.

References

  • Kartesz, J.T., The Biota of North American Program (BONAP). 2015. Taxonomic Data Center. Link to website. Chapel Hill, N.C. [maps generated from Kartesz, J.T. 2015. Floristic synthesis of North America, Version 1.0. Biota of North America Program (BONAP). (in press)]
  • Urguhart, Frederick Albert, Norah Roden Urguhart, and Francis Munger. 1968. Population of Danaus plexippus in Southern California. Journal of Research on the Lepidoptera 7(4): 169-181.
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Robert Coxe

Robert Coxe

Robert Coxe is a professional ecologist and botanist who has worked as the State Ecologist of Delaware and as an ecologist for the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy. He is also a former Past-President of the Pennsylvania Academy of Science. He currently is an innkeeper at McMullen House Bed & Breakfast LLC and a web designer and owner for Silphium Design LLC.

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