butterfly weed

Asclepias tuberosa: The Butterfly Weed

Butterfly Weed: The Monarch Magnet

By: Lauren M. Liff for Dabah Landscape Designs

            It’s quite easy to imagine how the butterfly weed earned its name. Asclepias tuberosa is a beautiful perennial with nectar and pollen rich flowers that attract tons of beneficial insects and pollinators including hummingbirds, bees and yes, you guessed it, hordes of butterflies! This beautiful perennial produces unique clusters of blooms all summer long and they range in color from bright orange to yellow and red. Being that the butterfly weed is a North American Native, it is fairly easy to grow and once established, requires little effort in terms of maintenance.

            Cousin to the milkweed, butterfly weed plants typically reach heights between 12 and 36 inches. The brightly colored blooms sit atop fuzzy green stems surrounded by lance-shaped leaves. Although it is related to the milkweed, this species does not have the milky-sapped stems as the other milkweeds do. This beauty normally grows wild in meadows, open woods, prairies, fields and along roadways however it has enormous garden bed potential. For garden use, they look fantastic when planted in wildflower meadows, garden borders, rock gardens and even as a mass planting in a perennial bed. They require full sun and will thrive in sandy or rocky soil; once established, the butterfly weed is also drought tolerant.

            When planting the butterfly weed, make sure to put it in its permanent place in your garden as the roots are long and very sturdy making transplantation incredibly difficult. Once planted, keep the soil moist until the butterfly weed is established and starts showing new growth – after that it requires occasional water (but keep in mind, it does prefer dry soil). When pruning your butterfly weed, you can trim old growth every spring to keep it happy and healthy. Do not fertilize this perennial as it might actually do the opposite of what is intended and harm the plant. The butterfly weed is susceptible to mealybugs and aphids however these can be easily controlled with insecticidal soap or horticultural oil.

            In the fall, the flowers give way to spindle-shaped seedpods, which are admired when cuttings are used in arrangements of dried flowers. The butterfly weed is self-seeding unless the seedpods are removed. The pods split open and the silky-tailed seeds are dispersed by the wind. An interesting fact about this perennial is that aside from going by the name “butterfly weed” it is also referred to as pleurisy root due to the fact that the plant roots were previously used for medicinal purposes to treat lung inflammations. 

            Asclepias tuberosa will obviously work famously in a butterfly garden. Not only do the blooms provide nectar and pollen, but also the thick leaves are perfectly designed for chrysalis formation. To start a butterfly garden, plant your butterfly weed alongside Coreopsis, Echinacea and butterfly bush (to name a few). Throw in a birdbath to provide water and some large rocks to give the butterflies a spot to catch some rays and before you know it, you will have your very own backyard butterfly sanctuary!