The Dozen Native Milkweeds of Winnebago County and Northern Illinois

With notes from the original Flora of Winnebago County, Illinois by Egbert Fell (in quotations). Gardening notes by Alan Branhagen: plant the appropriate species to your garden or landscape.

We encourage you to plant native milkweed plants in your garden to benefit Monarchs, which saw their second lowest overwintering numbers in Mexico during the 2023/24 winter season, and other butterflies. Some of these milkweeds have nectar benefits, which butterflies also need.


Blunt-leaved or Sand Milkweed Asclepias amplexicaulis

“Rather common in the sand areas, …”  This elegant milkweed with curvaceous leaves and an open flower cluster is a specialist to sandy sites and is not happy in good garden soil. If you have a very sandy site, you could plant this milkweed, but it is usually available only as seed.



Poke milkweed. Photo: Alan Branhagen

Poke Milkweed Asclepias exaltata

“Not uncommon in woods usually in damp places.” This milkweed has open, drooping clusters of green and white flowers will thrive in light to moderate shade so is a good solution to provide milkweed for monarchs in a shady site.






Tall Green Milkweed Asclepias hirtella

“…, very uncommonly found in low prairies.” This milkweed has striking spiky foliage and striking ball-shaped tight clusters of greenish flowers along the stem while in bloom. It needs full sun and rich, well-drained soils and usually only available as seed.



Swamp milkweed. Photo: Alan Branhagen

Swamp Milkweed Asclepias incarnata*

“Common in such wet places…” This is the longest blooming and fastest growing of our locally native milkweeds and will even thrive in a container – especially one sitting in a tray of water. It’s fragrant, rich pink to deep rose and occasionally white flowers bloom profusely but prefers moisture and will be short-lived in drier sites. Readily available and easy to grow.




Woolly milkweed. Photo: Jill Kennay

Woolly Milkweed Asclepias lanuginosa 

“Scarce, being found only on dry prairies…”This Illinois Endangered milkweed should be protected where native and not cultivated. It is found only in specific dry ridge and hilltop prairie habitats.







Purple milkweed. Photo: Alan Branhagen

Purple Milkweed Asclepias purpurascens*

“Not common. Edge of woods, roads and railroads.” This milkweed has deep rose “purplish” flowers and thrives in both sun or light shade or half shade. It has become scarce or absent locally in the wild.  It is easy to grow and another great choice for a shadier site other milkweeds might not thrive in.




Four-leaved Milkweed Asclepias quadrifolia

“… once, at the edge of a woods northwest of Pecatonica…” This locally rare milkweed is another shade-loving species and needs to be relocated in Winnebago County as a wild plant – it is found in Ogle County. Seldom offered for sale with a more southerly distribution. It has distinctive tiered whorls of 4 leaves along its stem so is easy to identify. The plant is short in stature with white flowers.



Sullivant’s milkweed. Photo: Alan Branhagen

Sullivant’s Milkweed Asclepias sullivantii

“Common, being about as frequent as (common milkweed)…” now locally rare! Sullivant’s milkweed might be a more garden worthy milkweed than the common milkweed because of its showier flowers and it doesn’t spread so extensively. It is readily available even though it is now absent from the wild locally.






Common milkweed. Photo: Alan Branhagen

Common Milkweed Asclepias syriaca*

“Roads, railroads, waste places, etc.” Common Milkweed can sucker into extensive colonies which is why good gardeners often don’t like this plant in their flower borders. It is easy to edit by pulling unwanted stems and one of our best species for raising monarchs. The very fragrant “popcorn ball” pink flowers are superior for all sorts of pollinators.







Butterfly milkweed. Photo: Alan Branhagen

Butterfly Milkweed Asclepias tuberosa*

“More frequent in the sand areas than elsewhere but also found on dry prairies.”  The brilliant orange flowers of this milkweed make it a magnet for all sorts of other pollinators. Most strains do require well drained sandy, gravelly or rocky soil, but at least one major mail order nursery sells a strain that survives in clay. It also does well grown in containers.





Whorled milkweed. Photo: Alan Branhagen

Whorled Milkweed Asclepias verticillata*

“A very common weed on prairies that have been grazed.” This very fragrant, white-flowered plant with narrow, fine textured leaves does run into an extensive thicket but plays nice with surrounding plants so its aggressiveness is usually not a problem in the garden.







Low green milkweed. Photo: Alan Branhagen

Low Green Milkweed Asclepias viridiflora

“Not uncommon in Sugar River sand areas and occasionally on dry prairies …” This low growing milkweed is usually found in dry, challenging sites where it does not have competition from larger plants. The unique greenish flowers are striking on close inspection but not showy. It is best left in its natural habitat and rarely available.






*Milkweeds that are also very good Monarch (adult butterfly) nectar sources

Español »