Suitability of native milkweed (Asclepias) species versus cultivars for supporting monarch butterflies and bees in urban gardens

Adam M. Baker, Carl T. Redmond, Stephen B. Malcolm, Daniel A. Potter

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

3 Scopus citations


Public interest in ecological landscaping and gardening is fueling a robust market for native plants. Most plants available to consumers through the horticulture trade are cultivated forms that have been selected for modified flowers or foliage, compactness, or other ornamental characteristics. Depending on their traits, some native plant cultivars seem to support pollinators, specialist insect folivores, and insect-based vertebrate food webs as effectively as native plant species, whereas others do not. There is particular need for information on whether native cultivars can be as effective as true or ''wild-type'' native species for supporting specialist native insects of conservation concern. Herein we compared the suitability of native milkweed species and their cultivars for attracting and supporting one such insect, the iconic monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus L.), as well as native bees in urban pollinator gardens. Wild-type Asclepias incarnata L. (swamp milkweed) and Asclepias tuberosa L. (butterfly milkweed) and three additional cultivars of each that vary in stature, floral display, and foliage color were grown in a replicated common garden experiment at a public arboretum. We monitored the plants for colonization by wild monarchs, assessed their suitability for supporting monarch larvae in greenhouse trials, measured their defensive characteristics (leaf trichome density, latex, and cardenolide levels), and compared the proportionate abundance and diversity of bee families and genera visiting their blooms. Significantly more monarch eggs and larvae were found on A. incarnata than A. tuberosa in both years, but within each milkweed group, cultivars were colonized to the same extent as wild types. Despite some differences in defense allocation, all cultivars were as suitable as wild-type milkweeds in supporting monarch larval growth. Five bee families and 17 genera were represented amongst the 2,436 total bees sampled from blooms of wild-type milkweeds and their cultivars in the replicated gardens. Bee assemblages of A. incarnata were dominated by Apidae (Bombus, Xylocopa spp., and Apis mellifera), whereas A. tuberosa attracted relatively more Halictidae (especially Lasioglossum spp.) and Megachilidae. Proportionate abundance of bee families and genera was generally similar for cultivars and their respective wild types. This study suggests that, at least in small urban gardens, milkweed cultivars can be as suitable as their parental species for supporting monarch butterflies and native bees.

Original languageEnglish
Article numbere9823
StatePublished - 2020

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
Funding was provided by USDA-NIFA-SCRI grant 2016-51181-235399 administered through IR4 Grant 2015-34383-23710, the Horticultural Research Institute, BASF Living Acres Program, University of Kentucky Nursery Research Endowment Fund, and USDA-NIFA Hatch Project no. 2351587000. The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.

Publisher Copyright:
Copyright © 2020 Baker et al.


  • Asclepias
  • Bees
  • Conservation
  • Cultivation
  • Danaus plexippus
  • Gardens
  • Urban

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Neuroscience (all)
  • Biochemistry, Genetics and Molecular Biology (all)
  • Agricultural and Biological Sciences (all)


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