Butterfly WeedAsclepias tuberosa
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Butterfly Weed is a perennial plant native to North America that has always been a cottage garden favorite. It has bold orange to yellow blooms in the summer months, and these attract hordes of pollinators including monarchs and other butterflies. The many stems rise to between 2 and 3 feet tall, with dark-green leaves, and they are topped with big heads of blooms. Very drought tolerant, this is an ideal plant for those hot, dry, sunny places in every garden.
Butterfly Weed should be planted in full sun for the best results. It grows well in any well-drained soil, including dry and poor soils. Young plants take a couple of years to become established and begin to bloom, but once they are this is an easy and long-lived plant. Choose the right spot for it, as it can’t be transplanted. Pests, diseases and deer leave it alone, and a simple cutting down in late fall is all the care it needs.
A weed by any other name. . .could be a garden flower. Plants get called ‘weed’ by us – it isn’t a natural designation – and sadly our ancestors often viewed all wild plants as ‘weeds’ – opponents of the food crops and garden favorites they had carefully carried over the Atlantic to their new home. Thankfully we take a broader view today, and few people now would look at the beautiful Butterfly Weed and want to rip it out – we are much more likely to admire it’s vibrant orange or yellow blossoms, and thrill at the butterflies and other insects it attracts to our gardens. While we all don’t want to devote our gardens only to native plants, when we have one as beautiful as this, everyone can certainly find a place for it to thrive and to enjoy it’s beauty. A tough and easy plant that thrives in sun and drier soils, this prairie native is adaptable to most parts of the country, and sure to bring color and interest, it blooms all summer long – giving you and the butterflies plenty of time to enjoy it.
Butterfly Weed is a herbaceous perennial plant, meaning it sends up stems each year, flowers and then dies back to the roots, reliably re-sprouting stronger than ever the following spring. It typically grows around 2 feet tall, but could grow a whole foot more than that when well established in good conditions. It forms a clump of many stems, covering a space of about 18 inches, never spreading sideways or elbowing other plants out of the way. The new stems are late to sprout in spring, so don’t think it is dead. Soon enough strong shoots will push up, covered with fine hairs and clothed from top to bottom in smooth, slender leaves 3 to 5 inches long and ½ to 1 inch wide. These are dark-green with grayish overtones, and a paler green on the underside.
Flowers form in large clusters at the ends of the stems by early summer and blooming last for several weeks throughout that season. Each cluster has many blooms with a unique form that has been compared to orchids in its complexity. The five petals hang downwards, while pushing up are five complex structures called a ‘hood and horn’ which hide the stamens and their pollen. In the center is a large ‘gynostegium’ that sits above the immature seed pod and collects the pollen. All these flower structures are colored a beautiful bright orange or yellow – flowers vary in color naturally so we can’t predict exactly what tone yours will be. Find a botanical picture, examine a flower closely and marvel at the creativity and complexity of Nature.
These striking flowers make a colorful display in the garden, attracting all sorts of pollinators, from bees and wasps to butterflies, including the monarch butterfly. After flowering a large seed pod forms, around 5 inches long, but possibly up to 8 inches long, shaped like a very elongated egg, with a pointed tip. These are gray-green in color and by fall they will have dried, turned brown and eventually split open to release hundreds of feathery seeds that blow away in the wind – adding to wild populations and perhaps growing as bonus plants in your garden.
Butterfly Weed fits into all kinds of gardens, but it loves best casual, cottage-style gardens and mixed beds of flowers. If you have an underdeveloped piece of ground, plant it with this colorful plant and selection of ornamental grasses, and perhaps Agastache and other sun-loving plants. Voilà – instant casual beauty. It of course deserves a priced place in every garden of native flowers and bushes. Mass plantings can be used on sunny slopes, or bordering wooded areas – everywhere you want summer color for little effort.
This plant is native, so it is well adapted to our local conditions, thriving from zone 3 all the way to zone 9.
For the best growth, plant your Butterfly Weed plants in full sun. They grow well in any well-drained soil, including poor, dry soils. Avoid wet soil and there is usually no need to add composts and manures when planting. Water regularly for the first season, but after that this plant is very drought resistant.
Young plants of Butterfly Weed do take a year or two to develop, and 3 or 4 years to reach full maturity, so be patient, you may not see much or any bloom in the first summer. Be careful in choosing where to plant, as once it is established this plant does not like moving, and it shouldn’t be transplanted unless absolutely necessary. Pests, diseases and deer normally cause no issues. You can remove the young seed pods if you don’t want seeds blowing around, but otherwise the only care needed is to cut down the stems to the ground in late fall or early spring. That’s it – a very easy plant to grow.
Butterfly Weed, Asclepias tuberosa, is a member of the Milkweeds, although it doesn’t have the characteristic milky sap of most of those plants. There are about 200 species, growing in North and South America and in Africa. Butterfly Weed itself grows throughout eastern and southwestern North America, in prairies and rocky open areas, as well as in fields and waste ground. The plants raised for gardens are grown from seed of improved forms, so they are stronger and produce larger heads and blooms than wild plants generally do. They also range in color from dark orange to bright yellow, so we can’t guarantee the exact shade of your particular plant.
This great native plant is perennially popular, and the perfect colorful addition to a low-maintenance garden. No matter how busy you are, you have time for the Butterfly Weed in your garden. Order now, as these plants are always in high demand – and no wonder.