Butterfly Weed Seed Pods Photo

Botanical Name: Asclepias tuberosa Carpenter Bee on Asclepias tuberosaPhoto by Tracie Bowers Common Name(s): Butterfly Weed, Pleurisy Root Category: Herbaceous Perennial Comment: Unlike many milkweeds Butterfly weed does not have milky-sapped stems. Flowers are a food source for many types of butterflies and the leaves are eaten by the Monarch larvae. May take 2-3 years to establish and produce many flowers. Crown rot … Butterfly Weed Seed Pods Photo This photograph from Wikipedia speaks volumes to the importance of the milkweed. Asclepias tuberosa is a favored nesting site for the Monarch butterfly. At summers The Perennial Plant Association’s Perennial of the Year 2017 is butterflyweed, Asclepias tuberosa. This native milkweed offers brilliant orange flowers attractive to a wide range of butterflies and other insects and is a host for monarch butterfly caterpillars. Learn more about this tough, long-lived herbaceous perennial that makes a great addition to many types of gardens in this article…

Butterfly Weed

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Carpenter Bee on Asclepias tuberosa
Photo by Tracie Bowers

Butterfly Weed, Pleurisy Root

Unlike many milkweeds Butterfly weed does not have milky-sapped stems. Flowers are a food source for many types of butterflies and the leaves are eaten by the Monarch larvae. May take 2-3 years to establish and produce many flowers. Crown rot can be a problem in wet poorly drained soils.

Butterfly Weed
Photo by Tracie Bowers

1-2.5 feet

Flowering Period:
June to early September

Flower Color:

Butterfly gardens, prairies, naturalized areas

USDA zones 3-9

Easily grown from seeds. Plant produces seed pods that will split open and disperse silky seeds. Difficult to transplant because of the long taproot.

Full Sun

Easily grown in average to medium soils. Also does well in poor dry soils.

Butterfly Weed Seed Pods Photo

This photograph from Wikipedia speaks volumes to the importance of the milkweed. Asclepias tuberosa is a favored nesting site for the Monarch butterfly. At summers end, the wild plants we have growing at the shop will be covered with their larvae. The Monarch larvae feed on these leaves. The butterfly weed is a favored host in my area. They will spin cocoons; the mature butterflies will emerge some four weeks, give or take. Only once have I witnessed a mature butterfly emerging from its chrysalis-it happens that fast.

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Asclepias has much to recommend. The plants are long lived, utterly drought resistant, and carefree. The flower heads of asclepias tuberosa are orange and gorgeous. Asclepias incarnata has flower heads that are a quiet shade of dusky rose. But my main interest in them is the seed pods. The pods are large, ovate, and a compelling shade of bluish green. In late summer, this green phase dominates the plants.

Once the seeds begin to ripen, the pods will split along their length.

Our local fields and meadows are full of the remains of the milkweed pods come November. They have an elegantly spare and ruggedly persistent shape.

But the white fluff inside is what interests me the most. Each butterfly weed seed is firmly affixed to its own white silky and fluffy airplane. These white silky hairs catch the wind, and aid in the dispersal of the seed.

How plants set seed is an event any gardener would appreciate. How the milkweeds insure the survival of their seed is nothing short of miraculous.

From Wikipedia: The milkweed filaments from the follicles are hollow and coated with wax, and have good insulation qualities. As of 2007, milkweed is grown commercially as a hypoallergenic filling for pillows. This commercial use does not interest me as much as how the butterfly weed seeds itself. A milkweed seed with its virtually weightless attendant white fluff is a little and subtle miracle I never tire of. Every year, the marvel of it enchants me.

Once those seeds emerge, that fluff is everywhere. It will stick to your hands, your clothes, your shoes, your trowel, and your wheelbarrow. An individual seed is large, and relatively speaking, heavy. How this plant has evolved to insure that these big seeds get dispersed is but one of countless stories engineered by nature. I have had occasion to design and install fairly complex landscapes, but this design and execution is beyond compare.

Any landscape designers best ally is what comes from the natural world. All it takes is a lot of observation, and then some serious thought. As my friend and colleague Susan Cohan says, art does not necessarily have to work. No artwork needs a white silky airplane to be. A work of art lives independent of time,conditions, and circumstance. Good landscape design is a craft, in that every moment needs to assess the conditions, fire up,and fly.

The milkweed seeds about to fly is a day in the gardening season I look forward to. I would hope these plants would find a foothold in many places. I like that the Monarch butterfly feeds and reproduces on a plant that has a plan to not only enable these beautiful creatures, but reproduce.

Much of gardening is about the physical issues. The dirt, the water, the drainage, the weather, the maintenance, the beginning, and the ending. But there are those singular moments that float.

There is a day every gardening season when I make the effort to launch the asclepias seeds. It feels good to think I am doing my part.

Do these seeds need me? No. Nature saw to this efficient dispersal long before I ever took up a trowel. But I do it anyway. This white fluff I put in the air makes me feel good.

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Butterflyweed, Asclepias tuberosa

Butterflyweed, Asclepias tuberosa.
Butterflyweed is a long-lived herbaceous perennial in the milkweed family (Apocynaceae, formerly Asclepidaceae) native to much of North America except the northwest, from eastern Canada south to Florida, west to the Dakotas down to Colorado and the southwest, except Nevada, into California, but is most widespread in the eastern half of the U.S. With other common names including butterfly milkweed, orange milkweed, pleurisy root and chigger flower, Asclepias tuberosa is found in prairies and meadows, open woods, along roads and other open areas in zones 3-9.
Butterflyweed has many narrow leaves on multiple ascending stems.
This bushy perennial grows an abundance of dark green foliage on multiple erect to ascending stems from a large taproot, forming a clump 1½ to 3 feet tall and wide. Its tough, woody, knobby root that can grow several feet deep was used medicinally by Native Americans. The lanceolate to oblong leaves are primarily alternate, often crowded together on the stout, hairy stems which are green to dull reddish-purple. Each leaf, up to 6 inches long, is sessile or with a very short petiole, pointed at the end and toothless on the margins. The upper surface is smooth and glossy, while the underside is finely hairy, especially along the veins, and lighter in color than the upper side. Unlike most members of the milkweed family, this species does not have milky sap. The leaves turn a dull yellow in fall before the stems die back to the ground for the winter. It is best not to cut the foliage back in fall but wait until spring. Plants are slow to emerge late in the spring.
Large, flat to slightly dome-shaped umbels (clusters) of up to 25 bright orange star-shaped flowers are produced at the ends of hairy flowering stems or in upper leaf axils from late spring through summer. Each 3/8 inch wide fleshy flower has 5 reflexed petals (corolla) and a 5-parted crown (corona) of 5 curved horns protruding from hoods arching over a short white to light green column in the center.
Flowers are produced at the ends of stems (L), with buds changing from green to orange (LC) to open along the stems (C) for a showy display (RC) of many small 5-parted flowers (R).
Flower color is generally orange but can vary from orange to yellow or red.
These are generally all orange but there are yellow or red cultivars (such as ‘Hello Yellow’ and ‘Gay Butterflies’) and naturally occurring populations, all usually with a yellow central column. Each cluster is 2-5 inches across, making an excellent landing platform for butterflies. There are also 5 hairy, light green sepals below the petals which are hidden when the flowers open. The flowers produce copious amounts of nectar so are very attractive to hummingbirds and many insects, not just butterflies, and can also be used as cut flowers. Deadheading may stimulate a second flush of flowers about a month later.
Butterflyweed is attractive to many pollinators.
Successfully cross-pollinated flowers are followed by prominent, erect, narrow, spindle-shaped seed pods covered in short hairs (the fruit is a follicle). The 3-6 inch long, grayish-green pods split open when mature to release rows of hundreds of flattened, brown seeds, each with a narrow wing along the margins and a tuft of long, silky hairs (a pappus) at one end that aids in dispersal by wind. Butterflyweed may self-seed in the landscape if plants are allowed to go to seed; remove the pods before they split open to reduce self-seeding. The seed pods can be used in dried floral arrangements.
Butterflyweed can be used as a specimen plants in gardens.
This showy plant makes a great addition to home gardens, prairies, native plantings or for naturalizing, rain gardens, and butterfly gardens. They can be planted in masses or combined as an accent with other mid-sized perennials in the sunny border. The vivid orange color stands out, particularly in combination with blue or purple flowers but some find the intense color hard to blend in some landscapes. Try combining butterfly weed with blue morning glories, globe thistle (Echinops spp.), Penstemon digitalis ‘Husker Red’, or purple speedwells (Veronica spicata or hybrids) in a mixed garden.
Butterflyweed is a great addition to meadows and prairie plantings.
It or works well with other native perennials such as yellow coreopsis (Coreopsis verticillata), purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea), goldenrod (Solidago spp.), blazing star (Liatris spp.), black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta) and R.fulgida, and grasses such as little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium) or prairie dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis) in a meadow or prairie. It is a larval host plant for several butterflies, including monarch (Danaus plexippus) and the related Queen butterfly (D. gilippus, although this species occurs primarily in Central America into the southern US but may occasionally stray into the Midwest), so you may want to position the plant in the landscape where won’t be an eyesore if it is eaten ragged by caterpillars.
Butterflyweed needs full sun to thrive.
This plant needs full sun to bloom. Although it prefers sandy soil, butterflyweed grows in almost any type of soil, including gravel or clay, as long as it is well-drained. It is very drought tolerant once established. This plant is not favored by deer but is quite likely to be infested with aphids – most often the bright yellow oleander aphid with black legs (an introduced species native to the Mediterranean but almost cosmopolitan in distribution now). Small numbers of these insects will not harm the plant and many times are eaten by lady beetles or other predators. Large populations can be managed with insecticidal soap or reduced by knocking the insects off the plant with a forceful stream of water. Rabbits may eat the plants.
A young butterflyweed plant.
This species is easy to grow from seed, but can also be propagated from root cuttings. Cut the taproot into 2-inch sections in fall and plant in a vertical orientation. Plants will bloom from seed in 2-3 years, and do not transplant well because of the deep taproot. Sow outdoors in place after frost in the fall, in a cold frame in early spring, or start indoors with bottom heat in late winter (8-10 weeks before average last frost) after 1 month moist stratification to carefully transplant outside later. Using 3-4 inch deep containers, particularly with separate cells, will allow the roots to grow deeper and seedlings can be more readily transplanted without disturbing the roots as much.
– Susan Mahr, University of Wisconsin – Madison