Ask A Master Gardener – Butterfly Weed

Each year the members of the Perennial Plant Association select a “perennial of the year” based on four factors: low maintenance, few pests, adaptable to a variety of situations, and widely available to consumers. The 2017 winner is butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa).

Any time a plant can be added to the landscape that is native to the area, attracts pollinators, is stunningly beautiful, and has few problems, it is a win-win situation. Such is the case with this perennial.

The scientific name Asclepias tuberosa honors the Greek god of medicine, Asklepios. Another common name for butterfly weed is “pleurisy root” harkening back to the days when it was used to treat lung inflammations. However, most modern gardeners will plant it for its beauty and easy care.

Butterfly weed is a drought-tolerant, heat-tolerant plant that thrives in sandy soil, but will grow in almost any well-drained soil. It will need full sun to produce the intense, showy blooms.  It will grow 3-5 feet tall and 2-3 wide.  Each bloom cluster is 2-5 inches wide, making them perfect landing spots for pollinators.

Starting in the summer and continuing for an extended period, this plant will produce brilliant blooms primarily in orange, although there are a few yellow and red cultivars. The flowers attract a wide variety of pollinators including bees and butterflies.  The plant is also a larval host for some butterflies, most notable the Monarch.  In addition, they produce abundant nectar, so hummingbirds find them appealing. The plants are just a regular highway of activity on a busy summer day.

Use the long-lasting blooms in cut flower arrangements to brighten the indoors as well. Although in the milkweed family, this particular species lacks the milky sap of common milkweed, making it less messy to cut.  The seed pods can also be cut and used in dry flower arrangements.  In fact, the 2-3-inch-long seed pods contain many, many seeds.  Once they dry and crack open, those winged seeds will fly away and this plant is proficient at self-seeding.  So, remove them while they are still green to control the population.

Butterfly weed can be planted in groups, in native gardens, in pollinator gardens, or as an accent with companion plants. The vivid orange color is a stand-out when combined with blue and purple flowers, such as penstemons or speedwells.  Or, try combining it with some yellow flowers such as coreopsis and rudbeckia.  Of course, native grasses such as little blue stem or prairie drop seed compliment nearly any plant.

Butterfly weed can be easily started from seed, but will not bloom for 2-3 years. They can be propagated from root cuttings by cutting the taproot into 2-3-inch sections and planting in a vertical orientation. Because of their very long taproot, they do not transplant well, so decide ahead where they will fit in the landscape and make that their permanent home.  Young seedlings can be moved, but established plants will not transplant well.

Deer do not favor butterfly weed, rabbits will occasionally nibble at them, but aphids can be a problem. The good news is that they are easily dislodged with a strong stream of water.  Insecticidal soap is effective as well, but avoid use of pesticides since they will also kill any pollinators that might visit the flowers.

Plant this happy, vividly beautiful plant and set back to enjoy the show.

Carol Shirk

Certified Master Gardener

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