Monarch butterflies are the talk-of-the-town, their plight being well documented and dispersed to gardeners across the country. This unique and beautiful butterfly uses the many species of milkweed (Asclepias spp.) to lay their eggs and subsequently provide food for the emerging caterpillar. Many different Asclepias species are available to gardeners, but one in particular is oft-visited by Monarchs: the common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca).
The dusty-purple flowers emerge in large, round clusters that droop from leaf axils on the top third of the plant. The blooms emit a soft, sweet fragrance attractive to a number of pollinators including the adult Monarch, but also honey bees, bumble bees, and many other native bee species. Common milkweed is a spreading perennial with underground rhizomes sometimes emerging as 2-3’ tall stems ten feet away from the parent plant! More often, new shoots arise within a foot or two of other stalks. It can become a nuisance plant in a formal garden, but can be useful in a more natural garden with regular removal of stalks outside of the desired area. The new, succulent shoots are edible, prepared much like asparagus – a curious gardener must pick the plant before the milky sap begins to move through the stems. Asclepias syriaca will thrive in full sun with dry to medium moisture, poor quality soils, providing food and nesting for Monarch butterflies almost immediately!
A plant that pairs well with the height and habit of the common milkweed is the side-oats grama (Bouteloua curtipendula), a native, warm-season, perennial grass growing to 3’. Though not conventionally showy, closer inspection will reveal very delicate, beautiful flowers loosely dangling from long, thin stalks emerging in early-to-mid summer. The leaf blades of side-oats grama have a gray-blue hue and provide invaluable textural interest to the garden. Intermingled with naturalizing perennials like the common milkweed, Bouteloua curtipendula will provide a pastoral, rustic, and natural appeal. In winter, the foliage takes on a light brown cast and will persist a little ways into the season, continuing to provide texture. The seeds are attractive to turkey and other game birds and spread by clinging to the fur of hooved mammals that graze on side-oats grama. Three leafhopper species will only feed on side-oats grama and a number of grasshoppers are also known to feed on the foliage. The cultural preference for Bouteloua curtipendula is dry soils with full sun.
Another native perennial with a somewhat aggressive habit, pairing well with the aforementioned species, is the mountain mint (Pycnanthemum tenuifolium). Covered with clusters of small, pure-white blooms in summer, myriad pollinators find themselves feeding heavily on the copious amounts of nectar produced by mountain mint. Short rhizomes in abundance arise around the immediate area of the original plant, and require some maintenance to keep in check. The common name refers to the minty taste and aroma associated with this medium-stature perennial, which proves unpalatable to deer and other browsing mammals. Similar in habit, height, and cultural requirements to the common milkweed and side-oats grama, Pycnanthemum tenuifolium is well matched with these fellow Missouri native plants.
compiled by Cara L. Crocker