Great Small Trees For the Urban/Suburban Landscape

They say good things come in small packages. And when it comes to trees, I’d say that’s certainly true. While tall species like maples, oaks and elms boast lofty canopies, small trees flaunt their beauty up close. They’re a great addition to any landscape. But they’re especially suited to the smaller space, where even one, well-chosen specimen can brighten up a garden.


Yes, trees are beautiful to look at. But beyond their good looks, they also offer a wealth of benefits to the homeowner. These include the most obvious; shade. Research shows that, when positioned close to the house (especially near the southwest corner), trees can reduce a household’s energy consumption. And that in turn translates into energy savings.


Ever planted a tree that grew too big for your property? Root interference with walkways and plumbing is a common urban/suburban problem. Many people make the mistake of planting too large a tree in too little a space.

Unlike large trees, however, small trees can provide flexibility. While larger species should be planted 15 to 20 feet from the house, trees like dogwoods can be planted as close as 6. And where space permits, several small trees can be grouped in lieu of one large tree that might be out of scale with the landscape. 

Whatever the size, when choosing a tree, it’s important to select the right specimen from the start. And that involves doing your research on its mature height and width before planting it. Below are some of my favorite small trees that are well suited to the typical urban/suburban landscape. 


Vase-shaped, weeping or compact, there are literally hundreds of Japanese maple varieties to choose from. These elegant small trees provide interest all year long even after they’ve dropped their leaves. Leaf types can differ greatly between varieties.

Boasting deep maroon foliage, ‘Bloodgood’ is one of the hardiest Japanese maple varieties. I use it to create ‘depth’ in the landscape. Or, if you’re looking for artistry, check out the cut-leaf varieties, known for their feathery, finely-dissected leaves. 


Most redbuds available today are hybrids of the native Eastern redbud, or Cercis canadensis. Eastern redbuds grow in woodlands from New Jersey to northern Florida and as far west as the Great Plains.

Native redbud tree

Maturing to around 35′ tall, this early-flowering small tree produces spectacular magenta colored blossoms atop bare branches. It blooms so profusely in fact, that its branches and trunk are often covered with flowers.

Redbud blossoms

FUN FACT: Redbud is a member of the pea family, so its blossoms are edible!

New exciting cultivars include Forest Pansy, named for the burgundy color of its leaves. Other interesting varieties are Rising Sun and Lime Green. Plant redbud in a north facing location where it can absorb morning sun and relax in afternoon shade.


Flowering dogwood, Cornus florida, is native to eastern North America and northern Mexico. They say that at one time its population extended all the way from Maine to Florida and across to the Mississippi River. Today this small tree is still a denizen of many an American garden.

Native hybrids Cherokee ChiefCherokee Brave and Cherokee Princess were bred to be resistant to anthracnose, which attacked and killed many native dogwoods about a decade ago.

Maturing to a height of around 25 feet, flowering dogwood produces white or pink flowers in spring. The long-lasting, three- to five-inch blossoms are followed by red berries that provide food to birds. In fall, the leaves turn a brilliant red. 


Kousa dogwood, or Cornus kousa, is native to Japan, Korea and China. It differs from the flowering dogwood in that its blooms are produced on top of the leaves instead of on bare branches. The star-shaped blossoms blanket the tree, followed by berry-like fruits that persist into fall.

Kousa dogwoods typically grow 15 to 30 feet tall. They start out vase-shaped, then adopt a more rounded form as they mature. In fall, their leaves turn a brilliant red. And the grayish, exfoliating bark becomes mottled over time, providing great winter interest. 


One of the earliest small trees to flower, star magnolia, or Magnolia stellata, produces large, fragrant flowers anywhere between late February and mid-March depending on location. Like the flowering dogwood, the blooms appear ahead of the foliage. Since it flowers so early, star magnolia benefits from a sheltered spot as late spring frosts can damage the blossoms. 

One of the smallest magnolias, star magnolias grow 15 to 20 feet tall and wide and have a rounded, shrub-like form. 


This elegant shrub or small tree thrives in both sun and shade. It has an open, airy habit and a classic vase-like shape. The common witch hazel, or Hamamelis virginiana, peaks between mid October and mid November. By contrast, the popular Chinese witch hazel, Hamamelis mollis, and the hybrid Hamamelis x intermedia, blooms in early spring. Flower colors range from a deep burgundy to a pale butter yellow.

witch hazel blooms in February

Witch Hazel blossoms

This small tree packs a lot into a small space, but it is also very slow growing, so buy big. Individual plants usually top out at 5’ to 6’. Check out 12 great varieties here


This standard small tree of the southern garden now boasts varieties that can take the chill. Most popular among them are the Natchez cultivars, with their gorgeous flower panicles in red, pink or white, held at the end of their branches. Other attractive features include peeling bark and burgundy leaves in fall.

Crape myrtles are some of the last trees to leaf out in the spring, sometimes as late as May. A new, compact series called Black Diamond produce black foliage in early spring followed by vibrant blooms in shades of red, purple, pink, lilac and white. 


Boasting shiny dark green leaves with silvery undersides, Sweet Bay Magnolia is a glamorous addition to any landscape. In last spring to early summer, it produces creamy white flowers with a slight lemony scent. New foliage, which appears around the time of the blossoms, is bright green. 

In late summer, red seeded fruit appears on its branches. Sturdy and upright, sweet bay magnolia grows 10- to 15- feet tall, making it a great choice for a corner or patio.




Ten Minor Bulbs For Major Spring Impact

One of my favorite places to visit in the spring is the March Bank at Delaware’s Winterthur Museum. The estate’s stunning 60-acre naturalistic garden has one of the finest displays of minor bulbs around. Blooming in succession over a span of a few months, the bulbs weave a thick carpet of purples, pinks, blues, yellows and whites beneath the property’s centuries’ old trees. Faced with all that beauty, I vow each year to plant a few minor bulbs of my own.

Of course, most of us don’t have the wherewithal to plant the 70,000 tiny bulbs it takes annually to produce this magnificent display. Nevertheless, a more modest dose of the dwarf-sized early bloomers can still provide months of spring color. It’s more than worth the effort just to see your lawn or hillside light up come March in shades of lavender, yellow, white and blue.


At Winterthur, they have carefully chosen minor bulbs that bloom progressively over the whole spring season. The first blooms appear in February in a burst of snowy whites and bright yellows followed by later-blooming flowers in shades of lavender, pink and purple that carry the display up through April. And many of the early bloomers remain for the second part of the show, which results in a colorful tapestry of staggering beauty.

It may sound a little intimidating for the home gardener – but creating a miniature show of your own is easier than you think. Just choose a few species, dig a trench and throw a bunch of these small bulbs in, making sure to plant them at the recommended depth on the package. Toss in some bulb fertilizer and backfill. Then sit back and enjoy the expanding color come spring.

To get you started, below is a guide to the minor bulbs that Winterthur plants on the March Bank each year. All of them are easily available at your local nursery or by mail order through White Flower Farm or such great bulbs suppliers as Brent & Becky’s or Breck’s Bulbs. Most grow to only around 4 to 6 inches. The time to purchase them is now.

SNOWDROPS (Galanthus nivalis)

A member of the amaryllis family, the tiny snowdrop is one of the most popular of all bulbous plants. Featuring nodding, bright white flowers atop bluish green leaves, it typically flowers between January and March. The leaves have hardened tips that enable them to poke through the frozen ground in late winter.


Featuring bright yellow, cup-shaped blooms, this late winter bloomer appears ahead of most daffodils. Winter aconites make perfect companions to snowdrops.


Not exactly a bulb, the crocus grows from a corm. With over 90 known species, there are numerous varieties to choose from in yellow, white, blue and bicolor combinations. A favorite at Winterthur is Crocus tommasinianus, also known as ‘Tommies.’ Varying in tone from lilac to deep purple, Tommies are one of the smallest of the crocus species, growing to just about 2 inches high.

GLORY-OF-THE-SNOW (Chionodoxa)

Often confused with the early-blooming Scilla to which it is closely related, Glory-of-the-Snow is nonetheless a separate species. Featuring blue, white or pink flowers, the name is derived from the plant’s habit of flowering in alpine regions just as the spring snow is melting. A particularly beautiful cultivar is ‘Alba’.


As its name implies, this tiny early bloomer with bright blue flowers is well adapted to the cold. A native of Russia, its nodding flowers emerge over tufts of grass-like foliage from March through April.


Not to be confused with their larger cousins, these minor bulbs begin blooming at the tail end of winter. The best-known species is Tete-A-Tete. Flowering from mid-March to early April, Tete-A-Tete often features two flowers in combination (hence the translation ‘Two people talking to each other’). It even blooms in the snow.

GRAPE HYACINTHS (Muscari armeniacum)

Grape hyacinths look like miniature hyacinths, but they are smaller and grow only to about 6 inches. They produce a tiny cobalt blue spike of flowers that resemble beads (or blueberries). Highly fragrant, grape hyacinths bloom in mid spring.


This low-growing, daisy-like flower with a yellow center has delicate petaled flowers that grow 3 to 8 inches. Anenomes can easily form carpets of color across wide expanses of space. Available in light purple-blue, pink and white shades.

SNAKES HEAD LILY (Fritillaria meleagris)

A member of the lily family, Snake’s Head also goes by the names checkerboard fritillary and Guinea Hen flower due to its characteristic patterned blooms. The tiny maroon checkered flowers appear from March to May and grow 6 to 10 inches.

SPANISH BLUEBELLS (Hyacinthoides hispanica)

Also known as wild hyacinths, Spanish bluebells produce 15-20 inch spikes of pink, blue or white bell-shaped blooms in late spring. The plants naturalize easily and can quickly cover large areas. Spanish bluebells will bloom for a sustained period of time, making them excellent companions to all species of daffodils.


Bulb planting is easy provided you follow a few simple rules. First and foremost, make sure to plant your bulbs in a well-drained site (hillsides work great) to guard against root and bulb rot. Like all bulbs, minor bulbs do not like waterlogged sites.

All bulbs can grow in full sun but, with the exception of the crocus (which requires sun), most will adapt well to shadier spots since leafless tree branches let in plenty of sun in the early spring when the bulbs are most active. Bulbs typically go dormant around the time the leaves appear.

Lastly, when planting minor bulbs, think broad strokes, not individual flowers. The tiny species are best appreciated in large drifts. Combine different colors and shapes for a long-blooming display in rock gardens, along walkways and sprinkled throughout the woods. Or go bold and plant them in your lawn. You’ll be amazed at the colorful carpet they’ll create come spring.


A Beginner’s Guide To 13 Types of Daffodils

At the end of summer, daffodils are rarely top-of-mind. But this is precisely the time when you need to be ordering them. And this is especially true for the more sought-after, unusual varieties. Why stick with yellow trumpets when daffodils come in so many other colors, shapes and sizes? See below if one or more of these different types of daffodils wouldn’t be the perfect fit for your 2021 spring garden. Continue reading

Pruning Hydrangeas: A Step-By-Step Guide For Old And New Wood

To prune or not to prune? This is one of the quintessential gardening questions. Recently, I asked a top landscaper in Virginia to weigh in on the issue. “When is the best time to prune hydrangeas without cutting off next year’s flowers?” I asked. Her reply?

“Never,” she said with a laugh. “But your best shot is after they’ve bloomed.”

It turns out that knowing how and when to prune hydrangeas involves first, identifying what kind of shrubs you own. And it all starts with determining whether they flower on old or new wood. Continue reading

Top Red, White and Blue Flowers For The Summer Garden

For many Americans, Fourth of July is synonymous with fireworks. But for gardeners, the pyrotechnics start early. That’s because by mid June, spring pastels are already giving way to dazzling color as red, white and blue flowers begin lighting up the summer garden. Continue reading

True Blue Flowers: Why Real Ones Are So Hard To Find

For centuries, people around the globe have searched for a true blue flower. Elusive and rare, it is seldom found in nature. Or, to put it another way, it is rarely perceived in nature. It all has to do with what each of us sees as true blue.

To find out why this is so, I signed up for an on-line lecture given by Brandon George, a grad student in public garden stewardship at Cornell Botanic Gardens. His research not only produced a great list of blue flowers, but also shed some (hint) light on the issue.


So why is blue so rare in the plant world? For starters, I’ll ask you to refer to the color wheel below.

Blue is a primary color. On the visible color spectrum, it is located between green and violet. But that’s where things get murky. Take a look at the wheel. Some blues tend towards green, while others tend towards violet. Do all of these pigments merit the name blue?

Indeed, how does one determine what constitutes a true blue? This has turned out to be a problem for horticulturalists and growers the globe over.  To address the issue, the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) in 1966 created a chart by which you could match precise colors to flowers, fruits and other plants. Now in its 6th revised edition, the RHS Colour Chart is today the standard reference used by horticulturalists worldwide for communicating information about plants. It contains 920 colors.

Still, while the RHS Colour Chart helps differentiate among different tones of blue, it doesn’t explain why a true, pure blue remains so elusive. And here’s the surprise. While blue is a very prominent color on earth, it is rarely produced in nature. In fact, of all the 280,000 known species of flowering plants, only 10 percent are blue.


It turns out that plants aren’t born blue. Instead, much like artists, they must mix naturally-occurring pigments to achieve their blue hue. The most common of these pigments are called anthocyanins. Anthocyanins are responsible for many colors, from orange and red to violet and blue. And they can vary according to soil pH, which indirectly impacts flower color.

Hydrangea macrophylla ‘Nikko Blue’

What we perceive as blue, then, is actually the result of reflected light from these anthocyanins. And just the tiniest tweak of metal ions in the soil can result in the same plant producing different blues. (Think blue hydrangeas, which are produced by adding acid to the soil.) Finding a true blue flower is pretty hard indeed.


Even then, some of us may still see purple as blue.  Deutan Color Blindness (do-tan) is an anomaly of the ‘M’ cone (Medium Wavelength Light) in which spectral sensitivity is shifted toward longer wavelengths. If you have it, you may experience confusion between colors such as purple and blue. Take a look at the photo below. Do you see purple and blue or just blue?

Photo credit/


Nowadays, blue flowers are highly prized. As a result, growers are introducing more and more plants that are labelled as blue. But beware – many are not truly blue! To differentiate among cultivars, horticulturalists now use the term ‘true blue’ to indicate a more true blue pigment.

Take, for instance, the hardy geranium ‘Rozanne’, a popular choice for the perennial garden. Some growers list it as violet, others lists it as blue. How do you perceive it? To my eye, it tends towards purple. While my colleague sees it as blue.

Hardy geranium ‘Rozanne’/Photo:

Have you ever wondered why the same blue plant can look entirely different across catalogs? Just because a plant has blue in its name doesn’t necessarily mean it’s blue. Some growers manipulate photos to make plants appear more blue. While others use tricks of light. If you can’t see the plant in person, George recommends consulting  user uploads rather than seller photos to get a better perspective on a plant’s true color.


There is one plant family that typically produces the truest blue flowers in nature. Boraginaceae, also known as the forget-me-not family, includes more than 27,000 species. The plants of this family are frequently hairy and include such garden ornamentals as Virginia bluebell (Mertensia virginica), Lungwort (Pulmonaria), Forget-Me-Not (Myosotis) and Heliotrope (Heliotropium).  Horticulturalists agree that these are indisputable blues, although changes in pH can induce color changes as the petals age.

Virginia bluebells

Other indisputable blue flowers include Grape hyacinth (Muscari), Siberian squill (Scilla siberica) and Blue Drumstick (Allium caeruleum), in addition to pH-sensitive Hydrangea macrophylla, which in acidic soil (a pH below 6) will turn blue. 

Blue Drumstick, Allium caeruleum

And don’t overlook the sky blue flowers of Brunnera macrophylla, Delphinium grandiflorum, and Plumbago cerastostigma, which are all great additions to the spring/summer border.


Perennials not your thing? There are also some great almost-true blue annuals. Evolvulus ‘Blue My Mind’, is a dwarf morning glory with fuzzy, silvery-green foliage. It looks great in containers or windowboxes, where it will happily trail over the edge.

Other great true blue annuals include Plumbago auriculata (a very light blue), Love-In-A-Mist, and Gentian sage (Salvia patens), a tender perennial that has the deepest blue flowers you’ll find.

Gentian sage, Salvia patens


When working with blue, remember it is considered a cool color, so it will recede into the landscape. Consider bringing it forward to enjoy it and plant cultivars in mass for a stronger effect.

But a word of caution. Placing a lot of different ‘blues’ together will often cause some to look bluer than others (see below). To prevent this from happening, separate them out and plant them instead next to contrasting colors (such as orange or yellow), which will give the illusion of a brighter blue.

Blue or purple? Delphiniums growing in Dalat, Vietnam

For photos of my landscape designs, check out my Instagram at carole.herebydesign. I post seasonally from spring through late fall.


How To Identify Poison Ivy

Even bad boys can have a good side; and so it goes with an unwanted inhabitant of many a garden, poison ivy.  The native plant sure knows how to take over a room. For humans, its ornamental qualities are less than desirable. That being said, poison ivy does have its uses. See below.


According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), poison ivy is one of the most common poisonous plant species found throughout the continental United States. A native of North America, it grows mostly in the eastern and midwestern states where it tends to inhabit forests, fields, and shorelines. More worrisomely, it’s also come to love urban/suburban environments such as road sides and parks. This in turn has led to it taking up residence in many of our backyards. 

Poison ivy is a member of the sumac family, Anacardiaceae, which comprises over 860 known species. Along with poison sumac and poison oak, it is part of the genus toxicodendron, whose toxic properties produce contact dermatitis in affected individuals. 


So what makes toxicodendron so toxic? The culprit is urushiol, an oily resin with allergenic properties. Urushiol is found in every part of toxicodendron, including dead or dormant plants. When poison ivy, poison oak or poison sumac are bumped, damaged or even burned, they release urushiol as a means of protection.

In fact, research shows that only a small amount of exposure can cause an allergic rash. And by small amount, that means just 1 nanogram or one billionth of a gram. There is even evidence that urushiol can remain on a surface for up to five years. The take-away? I’d say avoid these plants altogether.

On a good note, apparently about 10 to 15 percent of the human population is immune to poison ivy and its cousins, and therefore will never experience the rash. And poison ivy is less common outside the U.S., although it can still be found here and there around the globe. 


A common adage says ‘Leaves of three, let it be’, while another counsels ‘Leaves of three, run and flee’. I prefer the latter, having suffered from major breakouts throughout my lifetime in the garden. That being said, poison ivy is a chameleon when it comes to appearance. it can be downright hard to identify. Compare the photo below to the two above. You’ll see what I mean.

The truth is poison ivy has so many variations it can baffle even the most seasoned horticulturalist. Take for instance its make-up. It can be a creeping groundcover, or a woody vine (referred to as a liane) which, once it scales a tree, can put on 20 feet of growth in just one season. And full sun can cause it to take on a shrub form.

And while most of us know to look out for a plant with three leaves, from that point on, things can get murky. Poison ivy has a compound leaf, which means that what presents as a single leaf is actually three. Additionally, its leaves can be shiny or dull, and their size and shape can vary greatly. Some leaves are toothed, while others are deeply lobed. And in some rare instances, poison ivy can have five leaves instead of three. 

Poison ivy taking on fall color

Look for bright green leaves during the growing season and bright red ones in the fall.


The good news is that, according to the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA), poison ivy rashes are not contagious and therefore cannot be spread from person to person. However, it is possible to pick up the rash from toxins stuck to clothing, tools or other items including pets (see below.) And contrary to common thought, the rash occurs only where the oil has touched the skin. So rubbing or scratching won’t spread it. What may seem like a spreading rash is actually the toxin’s effects appearing gradually over time.

Photo credit/

Always wash your skin and clothes after coming into contact with poison ivy. This is essential to removing all traces of urushiol. And use cold water, not hot. Hot water thins the oil and helps it dissipate more quickly.


According to the Pet Poison Helpline, the answer is rarely. Usually, their long protective coats prevent the plant oils from ever reaching their skin. However, animals can carry the toxin on top of their fur, so don’t let your pet rub against you if you think he or she’s been in contact. Try bathing yours with a colloidal oatmeal shampoo while wearing gloves to eliminate the urushiol.

My cat, Squeaky


Before you decide to remove that patch on your slope, you might want to think again. Like kudzu, poison ivy is great at erosion control, especially on coastlines where it acts as a stabilizer for sandy soil. (It’s a big player along the Eastern coastline.) Moreover, it provides valuable food for many species of wildlife, who eat its fruit, stems and leaves.  And it also functions as a protective shelter for small mammals.

Small animals like rabbits like to feed on poison ivy


As with most unwanted plants, the best way to eliminate them is to get to know their seedlings and start early. As poison ivy matures, however, it may require years of patient digging to totally eliminate its root structure.  You can apply an herbicide like glyphosate to the plant’s roots, leaves or vines. However, be sure to wear eye protection and gloves when chopping down vines. And never use a chain saw, which can spread the toxins by air.



How To Build The Perfect Monarch Butterfly Garden

monarch on pink flowers

Daniel Potter freely admits he’s not an expert on monarchs. But as Professor of Entomology at the University of Kentucky, he and his grad students sure love to run experiments. Recently, they completed a two-year study on the likes and dislikes of the popular orange and black butterfly. Now for the first time ever, there’s a roadmap for building the perfect monarch garden.


If you’re reading this post, you’re probably already a monarch fan. The butterflies’ annual migration from Mexico to Canada is one of the most spectacular events worldwide. All told, the tiny insects fly upwards of 2000 miles roundtrip each spring, stopping four times to breed and lay their eggs. They are the only butterfly species to make such a long, two-way migration.

monarch migration

Over the past 25 years, however, there’s been a sharp decline in monarch populations. Part of this is due to a loss of habitat at the butterflies’ overwintering site in Mexico. Activities such as logging, agriculture and urbanization have all taken their toll on the central highland forests that play host to the insects six months out of every year.

But by far the most significant factor driving the decline is the dwindling supply of a plant called milkweed. The native wildflower is the only plant that monarch caterpillars will eat. And without it, the butterflies cannot complete their life cycle, sustain their migration and ultimately, perpetuate their species.

monarch feeding on milkweed


According to the North American Monarch Conservation Plan, we need 1.8 billion milkweed stems to replace those that have been lost to agriculture and urbanization. And to sustain the annual migration, these contributions need to come from all land sectors. This includes farms, roadsides, schools, zoos and rights of way. And it also includes suburban and urban gardens located along the butterflies’ migratory corridor.

Luckily, an initiative called the Monarch Waystation Program is starting to make a crucial difference. Established in 2005, it engages citizens in conservation by providing instruction and materials on how to build and maintain a monarch habitat. The guidelines are simple: Plant two or more milkweed varieties for the caterpillars to feed on, some nectar sources for the adults, and you become part of a national registry. To date, over 6000 Monarch Waystations in 46 states have become part of the effort. 


And as it happened, the Waystation Program Registry provided the perfect jumping off point for Potter’s research into monarch butterfly gardens. A quick Google Earth search by his team revealed hundreds of habitats scattered along the butterflies’ northward route. What’s more, they represented every kind of landscape.

As Potter put it, ‘Some were non-structured, others ‘wild’, and still others were surrounded by hardscape or located in open rural areas.’ Below are some aerial shots of a few of them. (Photo courtesy Dr. Daniel Potter.)

What Potter and his team wondered was this – with all of this diversity, could there be certain habitats that were more appealing than others? To find the answer, the group decided to survey 22 citizen-planted Waystations. Below are some key outcomes from their investigation. 


Like most species, monarchs use visual cues to zero in on what they’re looking for. And in the butterflies’ case, these ‘search images’ are made up exclusively of milkweed. But as the Registry revealed, not all Waystations are the same. Did monarchs favor certain monarch butterfly gardens over others?

Monarchs from ‘search images’ for milkweed

To find out, the researchers counted larvae and caterpillars for a year in their target Waystations to see if the type of habitat made any measurable difference.

monarch caterpillar on milkweed leaf

Monarch caterpillar on milkweed leaf

And they discovered that yes, the butterflies exhibited a strong preference. A structured garden, with milkweed surrounded by mulch, attracted three to five times more monarchs.

The takeaway? If you want more monarchs, make it easy for them to find the milkweed to lay their eggs on. Plant it apart from other plants. Even better, surround it with a mulch circle. But make sure to provide other nectar producing plants nearby for the returning adult butterflies to feed on.


Interestingly, the researchers found that gardens with unimpeded north-south access recruited more monarchs. This makes sense since it coincides with the butterflies’ migratory route.

monarch migration map

Monarchs prefer gardens with a north-south access


While all milkweed species are suitable for food, not all are equally favored by monarchs. To find out why, the group compared 8 varieties of milkweed all grown in Kentucky and native to the area. They evaluated them as to their suitability for egg-laying as well as their usability as food for monarch caterpillars. And there was a clear preference.

Where they had a choice, monarchs preferred the taller varieties, Swamp, Common and Showy over the smaller varieties like Butterfly weed

The takeaway? If you want to attract more egg-laying monarchs to your monarch butterfly garden, plant the tall, broadleaf milkweed varieties.


But what about all of the new milkweed cultivars, you say? As it has grown in popularity (mainly due to monarchs), milkweed is now available in many cultivated varieties boasting unusual colors and sizes.

Asclepias Gay Butterflies Mix/White Flower Farm

Not to worry. Potter and his students discovered that monarchs find these cultivars just as attractive as the straight species. But again, go with the bigger varieties if you want more monarchs.


Finally, there’s the case of tropical milkweed, a non-native plant that has exploded in popularity over the past decade. Both gardeners and monarchs love it. But buyer beware. Tropical milkweed is not ‘bad’, per se, but when planted in warm areas of the U.S. it encourages monarchs to stick around longer. It even enables them to winter-breed.

tropical milkweed

Tropical milkweed, Asclepias curassavica

Research shows, however, that monarchs breeding on tropical milkweed throughout the winter (rather than returning to Mexico) have higher levels of protozoan infection compared to monarchs in the normal migratory cycles. It turns out that migration is key to outrunning these pathogens.

The takeaway? Stick to the tried and true native milkweed species and help the insects keep to their schedule.

To learn more about Daniel Potter and his research into monarchs and other insects, click here for the Dr. Daniel A. Potter Laboratory.

This article was update September 2021.