Deadheading milkweed flowers in the early summer and cutting back old stalks in the fall are common ways to maintain a healthy milkweed patch!
Removing flowers that have wilted, also known as deadheading, is a great way to prolong blooms in the early and mid-summer. After the first flush of flowers, simply cut off the flower cluster above the topmost leaves on the stem. This will cause the plant to branch out and produce a second flush of flowers. Caution: The milkweed sap can be a skin irritant so be sure to use gloves while pruning.
In order for your milkweed to be able to produce seed pods in the fall, deadhead only the first flush of flowers. A single milkweed plant will produce hundreds of seeds and it is the best way to ensure you have seeds for the following year! Learn more about milkweed seed saving here. Milkweed plants are known to spread so if you do not have room for more milkweed plants, cut the pods off in the fall when the pods are tan and the seeds are coffee brown. You can then give these seeds out to friends and family.
Some birds are known to use the silky floss of milkweed pods to build their nests. The vermillion flycatcher, black-capped chickadees and Baltimore orioles are some of the known species that use milkweed floss for nest-building. So, once you have harvested seeds, you can toss the fluff back outside!
It's always best to plant milkweeds that are native to your area. In Nebraska, we have 17 native varieties of milkweed. These native milkweed are perennials, meaning they come back year after year. Their aerial parts (flower, leaves, stem) die back but their rootstock remains alive throughout the winter.
Cut back milkweed stalks in the late fall or winter, after they have produced seed pods and these seeds have had time to mature. Leave at least 6 inches of stalks to provide habitat for insects throughout the winter. Leaving stalks also gives you a marker so you know where your milkweed patch is. Birds such as Baltimore orioles can also strip fibers for nest material. When Spring arrives, you will have an abundance of new shoots and you won't have to do a thing!
Borders, Brianna and Lee-Mader, Eric. Milkweeds: A Conservation Practitioner's Guide
Dole, Claire Hagen. Brooklyn Botanic Garden. Milkweeds—Easing the Plight of the Monarch Butterfly. June 1, 2000.