Learn how to grow and care for butterfly weed and milkweed in this article. Includes tips on planting, growing and types of butterfly weed in New England How to Cut Back Butterfly Milkweed. Butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa) produces green foliage through spring and summer and clusters of small red, orange or yellow flowers. It grows in U.S. Department of Agriculture plant hardiness zones 4 through 10. The plant dies back each winter, but it returns from its perennial … Plant of the Week Asclepias tuberosa range map. USDA PLANTS Database. Butterfly milkweed ( Asclepias tuberosa ). Photo by Larry Stritch. Butterfly Milkweed ( Asclepias tuberosa L.)
How to Grow: Butterfly Weed
Late summer to fall in colors of orange, red, yellow and pink.
Mature Height x Spread
2 to 4 feet x 2 to 4 feet
Native, attracts hummingbirds, attracts beneficials, drought tolerant, deer resistant
This native has less stature, compared with the butterfly bush, but is just as effective at drawing in winged friends, such a butterflies, ladybugs and beneficial insects, into the garden. It’s particularly a favorite of the Monarch butterfly. Butterfly weed is also hardier and more adapted to a wider range of soils, making it a good choice if you’re having a hard time growing butterfly bush successfully. The plant is slow to emerge in spring, so don’t give up hope. My butterfly weed often will just start growing when other plants are fully leafed out around it. But it makes up for lost time quickly growing to 4 feet tall and wide with brightly colored flowers. Once growing it has few problems.
Where, When and How to Plant
Butterfly weed is hardy through New England. Sow seeds indoors in peat pots 6 to 8 weeks before your last frost date, thinning to one plant per pot. Or plant locally purchased plants in spring after danger of frost has passed or summer, in full sun on compost-amended, well-drained soil. Poor soil drainage is the one thing butterfly weed won’t stand. Space plants 2 to 3 feet apart. Butterfly weed has a taproot, so once planted it’s difficult to move.
Keep the plants well watered the first year and fertilize once in spring with compost. Butterfly weed is slow growing at first in our cool soils, so mark where you planted it so you accidentally don’t dig it up when planting annuals and other perennials in spring.
Regional Advice and Care
Deadhead spent flowers to encourage more flowering and reduce self-sowing. Weed out self-sown seedling each spring. Be carefully when pruning the plant as the stems have a milky sap that might be irritating to your skin. Cutback the plant to the ground in fall after a frost and compost it. It needs little care once established in the garden and can be drought tolerant. Aphids can sometimes be a problem and are easily controlled with sprays of insecticidal soap. Butterfly weed plants can withstand damage from the Monarch butterfly caterpillars. Don’t spray to kill them or you’ll not have any beautiful butterflies.
Companion Planting and Design
Plant butterfly weed in a perennial garden close to where you can view the butterflies from a window or deck. Since butterfly weed can have loud, hot flower colors, pair it in the garden with complimentary colored perennials, such as Russian sage, coneflowers and ornamental grasses. It can also be grown in the cut flower garden for arrangements.
Orange is the native flower color of the hardy, species version and it’s often sold just as Ascelpias tuberosa. “Hollow Yellow” is a yellow flowered version. “Cinderella” has pinkish-red colored flowers. “Gay Butterflies Mix” has plants in colors of red, orange and yellow.
How to Cut Back Butterfly Milkweed
Butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa) produces green foliage through spring and summer and clusters of small red, orange or yellow flowers. It grows in U.S. Department of Agriculture plant hardiness zones 4 through 10. The plant dies back each winter, but it returns from its perennial root system each year if it’s kept properly pruned. All parts of the butterfly weed are toxic if eaten.
Wipe the pruning shears with a cloth soaked in rubbing alcohol to disinfect them before pruning, and then wipe them again when moving between plants. Wear heavy gloves to protect your hands from the sap, which can cause skin irritation.
Cut back the entire plant by one-third to one-half its previous height in late winter or early spring before new growth emerges. Make the cuts within 1/4-inch of a leaf or leaf bud so the bush doesn’t have bare stems poking out. Remove all pruning clippings from the bed after pruning and dispose of them.
Remove the wilting flowers after the first flush of blooms begin to fade, cutting off the flower cluster above the topmost set of leaves on the stem. Removing the dead flowers prevents seed formation, which encourages butterfly weed to produce more flowers. Stop deadheading in late summer if you want decorative seed pods on the plants in fall and early winter.
Prune off the seed pods in late fall or early winter if you don’t want the butterfly weed to self-seed, or just to improve the garden’s appearance. Wait until spring to cut back the entire plant.
Things You Will Need
Butterfly weed flowers are suitable for cut flower arrangements, but the stems leak sap after cutting. Cut the flower stems back to a leaf. Sear the cut end lightly with a lit match or lighter to stop the flow of sap before adding them to your arrangement or placing them in a vase. Monarch butterfly caterpillars feed on the leaves of this plant exclusively, so consider allowing them to munch on it in some areas of your yard.
- Floridata: Asclepias Tuberosa
- Cornell University Extension: Butterfly Weed
- Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center: Deadheading or Trimming Butterfly Weed
Jenny Harrington has been a freelance writer since 2006. Her published articles have appeared in various print and online publications. Previously, she owned her own business, selling handmade items online, wholesale and at crafts fairs. Harrington’s specialties include small business information, crafting, decorating and gardening.
Plant of the Week
Asclepias tuberosa range map. USDA PLANTS Database.
Butterfly milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa). Photo by Larry Stritch.
Butterfly Milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa L.)
By Larry Stritch
Butterfly weed is a member of the milkweed family (Asclepiadaceae). The genus name Asclepias is named after the Greek god of medicine Asklepios. The species name tuberose refers to the tuberous (knobby and with swellings) roots.
Butterfly weed grows commonly in dry open habitats and is very common in the prairies and grasslands of the Midwest and Great Plains. This beautiful native wildflower is found from Maine to South Dakota to the desert southwest to Florida.
Native Americans harvested fibers from the dried stems that were made into ropes and used in weaving cloth. Many tribes used various parts of the butterfly weed as food. In colonial America, dried leaves of butterfly weed and skunk cabbage were made into a tea to treat chest inflammations thus giving butterfly weed an alternative name: pleurisy root. Pleurisy root was listed in the American Pharmacopoeia and the National Formulary until 1936.
Butterfly weed is a coarse perennial forb consisting of many stems. The stems are straight and very hairy. The leaves are alternate and simple. Unlike other species of milkweed butterfly weed does not contain the characteristic thick milky sap but instead has a watery translucent sap. The inflorescence is slightly rounded to flat and made up many individual flowers. The flower consists of five petals pointing down and topped by a crown of five erect hoods. The fruit is a pod containing numerous brown seed each with a tuft of silky white hairs. Many a child and adult have gleefully pulled the seeds from a ripened, opened pod and let them float gracefully on a gentle breeze.
Butterfly weed is commonly planted in formal garden borders and in meadow and prairie gardens. This wildflower does not transplant well as it has a deep woody taproot. It is easily propagated from seed. Collect the seed from the pods has they just begin to open. Butterfly weed seed need a three-month cold stratification. Therefore, it is best to plant the seed in autumn and they will easily germinate the following spring.
For More Information
Butterfly milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa). Photo by T.G. Barnes.
Butterfly milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa). Photo by Daniel Reed, courtesy of the University of Tennessee Herbarium.
Butterfly milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa). Photo by Elaine Haug, courtesy Smithsonian.