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Butterfly Weed
by Joleen Stone

Orange butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa) is an unsung hero of perennial, native and butterfly gardens. A member of the milkweed family (Asclepiadaceae), butterfly weed is unusual in that it is orange (instead of pink, purple, green or white) and doesn’t have milky sap like most other members of the family. It isn’t even always orange. The development of two wonderful cultivars, ‘Gay Butterflies’ and ‘Hello Yellow’ have brought an expanded color palette to this underused beauty. ‘Gay Butterflies’ brings in orange, dark orange, red orange, near burgundy and yellow. ‘Hello Yellow’, is a consistent bright yellow, for those who are not sure that orange is their color. Whatever it takes for you to grow butterfly weed, do it.

The yellow form of butterfly weed is quite different from the native and adds another color to a gardener’s palette.

In the wild, you will often find butterfly weed in dry, poor pasture or prairie soils, along roadsides and occasionally on the western edge of dry forests. Generally, there will only be a few plants growing together, and even though they produce a fair number of seeds, they are not invasive.

Digging from the wild is never encouraged, unless the plants are sitting on a piece of land destined to be developed. Then, by all means, attempt a rescue. But be warned, they are unhappy being moved, and they have a taproot that can be several feet long. When I’ve moved plants around my gardens, the pieces I’ve moved have done poorly, while the place I moved them from often rebounds and grows back. Plants are often available at reliable nurseries and can be transplanted from early spring to late summer.

Mark the planting site well, because they are slow to come out of dormancy in the spring. They are often accidentally dug up when a homeowner gets the spring-planting bug. Another method of growing butterfly weed is from seed. This is an inexpensive method to multiply your stock of plants, and in the case of most milkweeds, they will flower the first year from seed. Many seed companies recognize that butterfly weed is a very desirable plant and seed is readily available. When growing from seed, provide a moist chilling period three to six weeks prior to planting. Plant seeds into individual cells or pots, and transplant into the garden when they are sturdy enough to handle. Full sun and well-drained soil that is moderately low in organic matter will yield the best results.

In addition to being easy to grow and tough as nails when established, butterfly weed has other great attributes. Of course it attracts butterflies, monarchs in particular, who use it as a nectar source, as well as fodder for their green, yellow and white-striped offspring. It also provides downy silk for birds' nests, cut flowers for our summer bouquets and distinctive pods for dried arrangements. Native Americans used the fleshy tap root to treat pleurisy, an inflammation of the lining of the thorax and lungs, hence one of the common names, pleurisy root. This seems fitting, since the Latin name Asclepias is derived from the Greek god of medicine and healing, Asklepios, and honors the Greek herbalist, Aesculapius.

If you like tough, native plants that flower beautifully much of the summer in hot, dry conditions, and if you enjoy having butterflies (and caterpillars) in your garden, then this is the right plant for you.



Common Name: Butterfly weed, pleurisy root

Botanical Name: Asclepias tuberosa

Cultivars to Look For: ‘Gay Butterflies’, ‘Hello Yellow’

Color: Deep orange to red to yellow

Blooming Period: Blooms heavily in summer.

Type: Herbaceous perennial

USDA Hardiness Zones: 4–9

Size: 2-by-2 feet

Exposure: Full sun

When to Plant: From containers anytime, but generally spring through late summer.

Soil: Well-drained, average garden soil

Watering: To establish and in times of drought

Fertilizing: Slow-release fertilizer in spring; mulch lightly in spring and fall with compost or shredded leaves to control weeds. 

In Your Landscape: Warm, bright colors add interest as well as attract butterflies.



From Kentucky Gardener Volume VI Issue II. Photos courtesy of Joleen Stone.

Posted January 2014


Joleen Stone is a university-trained botanist and lifelong gardener.



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