“Hairy Balls”- A Different Kind of Milkweed

I love arranging with “Hairy Balls” for a unique centerpiece
Hairy Balls starting to form tennis ball size  pods

Visitors looking over my garden in the fall, always ask what the strange-looking plant is that is forming large hairy pods. Growing in my veggie garden, because of the amount of space the plants take, my Gymnocarpus physocarpa, or “Hairy Balls” are a conversation starter. A Milkweed family member, another common name is Balloon Plant. Native to South Africa, this plant is an invasive in tropical climates, but in my zone 6-7 area, winter cold keep it in check.

Hairy Balls in full glory

Here are some facts about this amazing plant:

  • Fast growing annual Milkweed, hardy in zones 8-10
  • Can sustain lots of munching monarch caterpillars late season
  • Nectar source for monarch butterflies
  • Long stems with pods make beautiful table centerpiece
  • Last viable Milkweed species before fall frost
  • Start seeds at least 6-8 weeks inside; easy to germinate in about a week
  • Flowers aren’t super showy, but still attractive
  • Fewer pollinators use this than native Milkweed
  • Pinch back the plant to make it bushier and with a stronger stem
  • Place in the rear of a border as it can top off at 6 feet and may require staking
  • The pods become ripe when they turn a tan color and burst open with the fuzzy seeds
  • I save some seeds for planting in early spring in my greenhouse
The single flowers are pendulous instead of a large ball of flowers in the common Milkweed

Though some people have told me that monarch caterpillars have ignored their Hairy Balls, I found at least a dozen of them on my plants at once.

You can see the white substance on the pod at the bottom which is why these plants are called Milkweed

When all of my common Milkweeds are done,  Hairy Balls Milkweed is going gangbusters into October and ending with our first hard frost. I have had these plants look good up to Halloween with active caterpillars.

The ripe balls turn tan and burst open with seeds

Starting these seeds in my greenhouse in early March is essential to Hairy Balls producing the balloon shaped pods by the end of the summer. For most of the summer, these plants grow up and branch out and then August/September hits and the pods start to appear after a flush of small dangling flowers.

The nondescript flowers start forming pods in September
Split a hairy Ball open and you will find hundreds of seeds

For my monarch populations, this Milkweed is important as it still is standing with plenty of foliage late into the summer/early fall. My other common Milkweed are totally denuded and finished when Hairy Balls hits its stride. For my post on other milkweeds, go to Got Milk….Weed? and Plant Milkweed for Monarchs. 

Common Milkweed has very different flowers and pods
Common Milkweed have long narrow pods

57 Replies to ““Hairy Balls”- A Different Kind of Milkweed”

  1. Claire
    I love all your posts. It’s a garden turtorial every time. Thanks for sharing all your knowledge with us.

  2. Hi there, bought 2 of these last year and kept them in their pots cause wasn’t sure what to do with them, they were huge!!! Not any activity on them till late Sept and Oct. Then they did their job. Finally when it was getting cold (Kansas) I cut the stems that had seed pods and put them in vases. Gradually the pods ripened and opened full of seed. Will start seed in the next few months and plant in ground this year. Will do a lot of pinching back to make bushier and maybe not so tall!!!! Lol

  3. why do people say the flowers on the hairy balls plant are dangly or insignificant I think they are really beautiful, as for the hairy balls themselves they are truly amazing. I have kept lots of seeds from last years plants in the hope they give me more plants this year. wish me luck

  4. I live in zone 5 and am anxiously waiting for pods to mature, they are still mostly green . And I am afraid they will not produce viable seed, before frost . Will the pods continue to ripen off the plant ?

    1. They’re called Milkweed bugs and they eat the seeds. I always take them on a ride to relocate. They’re found on all types of Milkweed.

    2. There is no need to kill off the milkweed bugs actually beetles ( there are two types). There is an entire ecosystem dependent on the milkweed plant. It is amazing. No need to be concerned all of these creatures have a place.

    1. Not sure. I think some will and it will branch out some, but if you have a lot of caterpillars, they will defoliate it

  5. My hairyball milkweed in a pot looks stressed, leaves are turning yellow and droopy. we had strong winds and it had fallen several times. Several pods have cone up. Is there something I can do to save it? I also noticed some cotton looking web on the soil where the major trunks are.


    1. Yes, unless you live in zones 8-9 in the far south in the U.S. I don’t know where you live, so couldn’t really tell you definitely.

  6. How do you save the seeds to start in the Spring? What is your advice as to how to harvest the seeds and how to keep them until it’s time to plant them?

  7. Do the harvested seeds need to be refrigerated? Do I need to do anything special when it’s time to plant them, like soak them? I’m a novice at this and really appreciate your help.

  8. I had my first Hairy Balls plant this year! Will it return in the spring or do I need to replant with seeds?
    Thanks much!

  9. Maybe a few years to late. But when I saw the words hairy balls I immediately started laughing 🤣. I’m a grown man but my sense of humor stopped evolving when I was 13. So I automatically thought something else when I saw those words.

  10. Has anyone ever tried to dry the Hairy Pods for dry floral arrangements. I was wondering what is the best method of drying?

  11. Has anyone tried drying the Hairy Pods for use in dry floral arrangements? I was wondering what the optimum drying process is.

  12. I was just give these seeds and it is already mid-May. Can I just plant them outside now and hope for the best?

  13. I’m in zone 6a, Columbus, Ohio. Last year I left one of the HB plants in the garden. It had several immature pods on it. The pods matured and opened and reseeded all over the garden over winter. I now have a forest of HB plants that the Monarchs are loving. I’ve found close to 100 eggs and I’m sure there are 100s more. I also have Common, Swamp and butterfly weed. The mommy’s prefer the HBs for sure.

    1. It looks like I found the answer to my dilemma. I have so many immature pods on my plants. With the temps dipping to 40’s at night, I don’t see any progress for them to mature. Glad to have come across your post, I will leave them where they are but will ‘bag’ some of the pods so I could harvest during springtime.

  14. I live in Ohio, and was given 2 Hairy Balls. They are light green in color and a few white strands on it. My question is do I need to stratify these? I have a nice setup with grow lights and I have started different milkweeds indoors under the lights. Since they are annuals I don’t think I need to stratify them, but since I only have 2 I don’t want to mess this up.

  15. I am passing this onto my wife! I never thought as a retired military guy here in Asheville, NC that I would ever be into flowers but here I am! When we originally got together 8 years ago she asked if she could plant some things in my yard and I said she could take up as much as she wants. Now we mow the small areas of grass with an old fashioned rotary mower! She is trying to become Monarch Way Station certified so this will make her day. Thank you. We subscribed!

    -Mark & Sara Radford

  16. I would love a picture of hairy balls seedlings. I inadvertently mixed them, common and swamp variety seeds when the labels fell off, and want to try and ID them in order to plant the seedlings in optimal spots. I think all 3 have pushed through, but one in particular seems to be prolific (unless they all look similar at first). Thanks,
    Amy S, The Woodlands TX

  17. Love this variety of milkweed! First season with this variety and am a huge fan! Learning curve is steep with regards to care, watering and pruning.

    Forgive my ignorance- is “pinching” different than pruning or cutting branches down as with other varieties? Does this need cutting back in winter?

    Thank you very much for your informative site!

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