Butterfly Weed

By Richard Flowers, ACCNP-Green Thumb Nursery-Ventura

There are many types of Milkweed: (Tropical, Narrow-leaf, Showy, Whorled, Swamp, Purple, and etc) Some are native to California, Mexico / Central America, Eastern Part of the United States, Africa, and the Southwest. Today, I want to familiarize you with one that is native to Southern/ Eastern part of the United States and it is called Butterfly Weed. Butterfly Weed is well adapted to growing in our area, hardy, and will grow in all climate zones. It grows in upright clumps, 1 to 3 feet tall and you can see it growing in dry, rocky areas, open woods, fields, and roadsides in its native habitat. Unlike many of the other Milkweeds, this species does not have milky- sap that comes out of the stems. Like other types of Milkweed, it goes dormant (goes away) during the winter but comes back later on in the spring. After it breaks dormancy, new growth tends to emerge late in the season. The leaves are mostly alternate, 1 1/2 – 2 1/4 inches long and pointed.

Commonly called Butterfly Weed, its botanical name is Asclepias tuberosa. Butterfly Weed is a tuberous-rooted, herbaceous (non woody) perennial in the Apocynaceae, or dogbane family and is related to such plants as: Oleander, Desert Rose, Mandivillea, Periwinkle (Vinca), and Dogbane. Its genus name, Asclepias, honors the Greek God Of Medicine, Asklepios. The species name, tuberosa, refers to the root. In literature, it is mentioned that the tough root was chewed by the Indians as a cure for pleurisy and other pulmonary ailments, hence it was given its other common name, Pleurisy Root. Native Americans and European pioneers used the boiled roots to treat diarrhea and respiratory illnesses. The young seed pods were used as food after being boiled in several changes of water. The seed pod down was spun and used to make candle wicks. Be advised all parts of the plant are poisonous and do not attempt to experiment without consulting with an appropriate professional. I will use the most recognized common name, Butterfly Weed in this text.

Butterfly Weed makes a delightful, long lasting cut flower for inside your home and is famous for attracting swarms of butterflies. Its flowers are an important nectar source for many butterflies and insect pollinators and is a larval host plant for the Monarch. Not only does Butterfly Weed attract the Monarchs, it is also favored by other butterflies and pollinators like: Grey Hairstreak, Queens, Eastern Tiger Swallowtails, Fritillaries, Painted Ladies, Pipevine Swallowtails, Bumble Bees, Honey Bees, and Hummingbirds. Be aware birds may be predators to butterflies and caterpillars. Deer do not favor this plant. It is prized for its large, flat-topped clusters of bright-orange flowers. These bright orange flower clusters are 2-5 inches across at the top of the flowering stem which you can find during the summer and early fall. These flat flower heads are perfect landing pads for butterflies. The thick, rugged leaves present a good place for chrysalis formation, although the rough leaves are not a heavily used host plant, but caterpillars can be reared on it successfully.

Butterfly Weed is easily grown in average, dry to medium, well-drained soil in full sun. It is drought tolerant, moderately salt tolerant, does well in poor, dry soil, and needs little summer water once established, although it can take regular water too. Because it loves a well draining soil, it can can be a challenge to grow in soils with clay. If you do have a clay soil be sure to plant it on a raised bed, do not over water, and mix cactus mix with the soil so it has adequate drainage. Butterfly Weed grows easily from seed, but expect it will take two to three years to establish and produce flowers. Mature plants may freely self-seed in the landscape if seed pods are not removed prior to splitting open. The seeds are carried in the wind and are covered with a downy cotton- like fiber. Butterfly weed contains interesting horned pods and when they burst open the down covered seeds are then dispersed. It does not transplant well due to its deep taproot and is probably best left undisturbed once established.

You can use Butterfly Weed in the garden as a fast grower that doesn’t need much care. This hardy, water-wise, and easy to grow plant works well in a border, meadow or natural area, and it is at home where you could have a mass planting with large swaths of orange. It grows well in unimproved soils and looks good mixed with plants like: Coneflower (Echinacea spp.), Butterfly Bush (Buddleja spp.), Salvias, Lavender( Lavandula spp.), Daisy plants, and other butterfly/pollinator plants. You can even plant Butterfly Weed in a container .

Be sure to call ahead because butterfly plants (especially ones that attract Monarchs) are all the rage now. Your favorite Green Thumb Nursery carries a wide variety of plants that attract butterflies.

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