Learn how to grow butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa), a low maintenance perennial that attracts butterflies and their larvae all season long. How to Plant Butterfly Weed Seeds. Sometimes called pleurisy root, butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa) is a perennial wildflower grown for its showy, reddish-orange flower clusters and textured, lanceolate leaves. It thrives throughout U.S. Department of Agriculture plant hardiness zones 4 to 10, where it is … The herbaceous perennial, Asclepias tuberosa (Butterfly Weed) makes a perfect addition to any yard and especially suited to butterfly gardens. [LEARN MORE]
How to Grow and Care for Butterfly Weed
Colleen Vanderlinden is an organic gardening expert and author of the book “Edible Gardening for the Midwest.” She has grown fruits and vegetables for over 12 years and professionally written for 15-plus years. To help move the organic gardening movement forward, she started an organic gardening website, “In the Garden Online,” in 2003 and launched the Mouse & Trowel Awards in 2007 to recognize gardening bloggers.
Julie Thompson-Adolf is a master gardener and author. She has 13+ years of experience with year-round organic gardening; seed starting and saving; growing heirloom plants, perennials, and annuals; and sustainable and urban farming.
Emily Estep is a plant biologist and fact-checker focused on environmental sciences. She received a Bachelor of Arts in Journalism and a Master of Science in Plant Biology from Ohio University. Emily has been a proofreader and editor at a variety of online media outlets over the past decade.
The Spruce / Adrienne Legault
Butterfly weed is a must-have plant for gardeners looking to coax the namesake winged insects into the garden. This clump-forming perennial grows from tuberous roots to a height of one to two feet and is characterized by glossy-green, lance-shaped leaves and clusters of bright orange-to-yellow blooms that are rich with nectar and pollen.
A type of milkweed, butterfly weed is generally planted in late spring after the soil is warm. It is fairly slow to become established and may take as much as three years before it flowers. When it finally does flower, its clusters of bright orange-yellow flowers will display from late spring until late summer. Unlike other milkweeds, butterfly weed does not have caustic milky sap, but it does produce the characteristic seed pods that release silky-tailed seeds to disperse on the wind.
Butterfly weed is considered mildly toxic to humans and to animals. But because it has much lower levels of the toxic sap found in standard milkweed, butterfly weed is regarded as a safer plant in homes with children or pets.
|Common Name||Butterfly weed, butterfly milkweed, pleurisy root, orange milkweed|
|Botanical Name||Asclepias tuberosa|
|Plant type||Herbaceous perennial|
|Mature size||1–2 ft. tall, 12 to 18 in. wide|
|Soil type||Dry, well-drained|
|Soil pH||Slightly acid to neutral (6.0 to 7.0)|
|Flower color||Orange, yellow|
|Hardiness zones||3–9 (USDA)|
|Native area||North America (eastern and southeastern U.S.)|
|Toxicity||Mildly toxic to animals and humans|
Butterfly Weed Care
Beloved for its ability to attract a variety of helpful (and beautiful) insects to the garden, butterfly weed is an easy-to-nurture herbaceous perennial that can also be found growing as a native wildflower in a slew of untamed environments, such as meadows, prairies, and forest clearings.
Typically grown from seeds you sow directly in the garden, butterfly weed does not require much tending to in order to thrive, prospering well in sandy, dry, rocky soil, and even in drought-like conditions.
Its seed pods will turn brown towards the end of the growing season (early autumn) and if left on the plant, they will burst and spread seeds throughout your garden to emerge as new volunteer plants the following spring. While the plant can take up to three years to fully mature and produce flowers, its blooms will gradually grow denser with each season that passes.
Like other types of milkweed, butterfly weed produces large seed pods that disperse small seeds with hairs that disperse on the wind. Thus, it can be an invasive plant that spreads every which way unless you break off the seed pods before they mature and split. Be careful when using this plant in gardens near wild prairie or meadow areas, as spreading is likely.
If possible, choose a spot in your garden that boasts lots of bright sunlight daily, as this plant loves to soak up the rays. Full sun is definitely your best bet.
Butterfly weed can prosper in a variety of soil conditions and compositions, from sand to gravel, and it generally prefers a neutral to slightly acidic pH.
During its first year of life (or until new plants start showing mature growth), you should maintain a moist soil environment for butterfly weed, giving it about one inch of water per week through combined rainfall and irrigation.
Once the plant appears to be well-established, you can cut back to watering it only occasionally, as it now prefers dry soil. An extensive, deep taproot helps it thrive even in dry conditions. Mature plants can do well with just monthly watering in all but the driest climates.
Temperature and Humidity
Butterfly weed thrives in a variety of different temperature and humidity settings, growing well in zones 3 to 9. Generally, the plant emerges in late spring, hitting its peak bloom during the warmer summer months and drying on the stem throughout the autumn and winter. It handles high-humidity and arid climates equally well, provided it gets adequate soil moisture.
Butterfly weed is a low-maintenance plant that does not require any additional fertilization. In fact, doing so can harm the plant, making it excessively leggy and reducing blooms.
Types of Butterfly Weed
There are a number of named cultivars of this plant. Most varieties, as well as the native species, are orange. But some popular varieties offer color variations:
- ‘Hello Yellow’ is a variety with bright yellow flowers.
- ‘Gay Butterflies’ has decidedly reddish flowers.
- ‘Western Gold Mix’ has golden-orange flowers and is bred especially for the alkaline soils of the western U.S.
Pruning Butterfly Weed
Though butterfly weed does not need much pruning throughout the year, it can be cut back to the ground ahead of the winter season. In late autumn, you’ll notice the leaves on the butterfly weed are beginning to yellow and the stems are drying out and turning brown. This is a sign that the plant is entering dormancy for the season. At this point, you can take a clean set of pruning shears and cut the plant to the ground, where it will stay until it reemerges in spring.
How to Grow Butterfly Weed From Seed
Typically, the easiest and most successful way to add butterfly weed to your garden is to grow it from seed. Plant fresh seeds in fall for growth the following spring, or allow any established butterfly weeds already in your garden to do the work for you.
Beginning in late summer or early fall, the plants should start to develop seed pods at the base of the pollinated blooms. If left on the stem, the pods will eventually burst and the seeds inside will be blown throughout your garden, allowing them to establish themselves in the soil in time for the following year. If you’d rather have more control over the eventual location of any new butterfly weed plants, you can remove the seed pods from the plant before they burst open and simply plant new seeds by hand instead.
If you want to start seed indoors, the seeds need cold stratification. Place seeds in moist seed starting mix in a container, then cover with a lid and leave in the refrigerator for two months. Remove from the refrigerator eight weeks before last expected frost, and place in a warm spot under grow lights. Do not let seeds dry out.
Once the seedlings have two sets of true leaves, pot them up in potting soil, and continue to grow inside. As temperatures warm outside and all danger of frost has passed, harden off seedlings for a week, then transplant in the garden.
Overwintering butterfly weed is a simple matter of cutting off the plant stem near ground level as soon as the plant succumbs to cold temperatures in the fall or early winter. There is no harm to leaving the plant stalks in place, though this encourages rampant self-seeding, which is usually not desired. Don’t mulch over the root crowns, as this can encourage rot.
Common Pests and Plant Diseases
In most circumstances, butterfly weed is largely trouble-free, but it can be susceptible to root rot if it is planted in dense soil that gets too much moisture. It can also be susceptible to fungal diseases such as rust and other leaf spots, though these are usually merely cosmetic and not fatal.
The plant can be susceptible to aphid damage, which usually is controlled by lady beetles and other predator insects. The plant serves as a host plant to many butterflies, including monarchs, so expect the leaves to be eaten. Do not use pesticides on milkweed.
How to Get Butterfly Weed to Bloom
In general, butterfly weed is not a difficult plant to cultivate and should bloom freely on its own once it has reached maturity (which can take up to three years). That being said, if you’re struggling to get your butterfly weed to bloom, there could be a few factors at play.
It’s important to get your watering cadence right for the plant. It should be watered regularly until new growth starts to appear (this includes leaves and stems, not just blooms), at which point you can decrease the frequency with which you water. Additionally, butterfly weed plants should not be fertilized. While fertilizer may work to make other plants bloom, it can actually harm butterfly weed and discourage blooming. If the plant is not receiving adequate sunlight, it may not bloom, Consider moving it to a new location.
Common Problems With Butterfly Weed
Other than the root rot that can appear in dense, wet soils, there are only a couple of common problems with butterfly weed.
The most common issue with butterfly weed is the rampant self-seeding that happens if the seed pods aren’t removed before they burst and scatter their seeds. This can be prevented by removing the seed pods before they dry and burst open. The volunteer plants that appear due to self-seeding should be removed before they establish long tap roots.
Butterfly weed is very attractive to feeding rabbits. Rodent repellant granules or sprays can provide some prevention, but metal fencing around the plants is the best solution.
These are very similar plants and members of the same plant genus. Both are of great value to butterflies and other pollinators. But butterfly weed has notable orange flowers, while milkweed has white or pink/mauve flowers. Further, milkweed is notably toxic, with the potential for fatality if large quantities are consumed by humans or animals. Butterfly weed, on the other hand, has rather mild toxicity, and fatalities are very rare.
Butterfly weed is, of course, a mainstay of butterfly gardens, though it is not quite as attractive to monarch butterflies as is the common milkweed. It is also commonly used in meadow gardens or any landscape design devoted to natural wildflowers. In the mixed border, landscapers find that the bright orange color blends well with blues and purples, such as purple coneflower, Liatris, or globe thistle. It also works well when blended with other yellow and orange flowers, such as coreopsis or black-eyed Susan.
First grown in the prairies of the Midwestern United States, butterfly weed boasts a long medicinal history. Native Americans used to chew the roots as a remedy for pleurisy and other pulmonary issues, and it can also be brewed into tea for treating diarrhea and other stomach ailments. But due to its mild toxicity, butterfly weed should never be eaten uncooked.
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How to Plant Butterfly Weed Seeds
Sometimes called pleurisy root, butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa) is a perennial wildflower grown for its showy, reddish-orange flower clusters and textured, lanceolate leaves. A member of the milkweed family, it thrives throughout U.S. Department of Agriculture plant hardiness zones 3 to 9, where it is frequently added to butterfly gardens and native plant landscaping.
Butterfly weed and milkweed seed pods may be harvested and planted to support Monarch butterfly caterpillars. Butterfly weed grows well from seeds, which must be harvested in late summer and either sown immediately in the garden, or started in spring after a lengthy chilling process. The seeds are viable and will germinate with little care, although they must be planted at the appropriate depth to ensure successful sprouting.
Gather the butterfly weed seeds in late summer or autumn, once the pods dry to a light, rosy-beige color, but before they split open. Put on rubber gloves before handling the pods to protect your hands from the mildly toxic sap.
Before you begin to harvest the butterfly weed pods, sterilize your cutting tools. Dip the blades into a full-strength household cleanser, such as Lysol or Pine-Sol. Repeat between cuts to prevent the spread of diseases.
Snip off the pod using pruning shears. Slice lengthwise along the edge using a utility knife. Pry open the seed pods. Scoop out the seeds and fluffy matter inside and place it in a bucket.
Leave the bucket outdoors for two or three days to let the fluff blow away. Stir the seeds occasionally to loosen more fluff. Do not worry if some of the fluff remains, since it won’t inhibit the germination process.
Place the butterfly weed seeds in a plastic bag filled with 1 cup of moistened perlite. Store the bag inside the refrigerator for three months. Mist the perlite with water every few days to keep it from drying out completely.
Prepare peat or other biodegradable pots before removing the butterfly weed seeds from the refrigerator. Fill 3-inch starter pots with a mixture of half seed-starting compost and half coarse sand. Moisten the mix and press it firm.
Make a 1/4-inch-deep planting hole in the center of compost mixture. Drop one butterfly weed seed in the planting hole. Cover it with a loose layer of compost. Mist the compost to settle it.
Arrange the starter pots on a propagation mat near a source of bright, indirect light such as near a partly shaded south-facing window. Set the temperature on the propagation mat to 86 F during the day. Turn it off at night.
Water the butterfly weed seeds whenever the compost feels barely damp when pressed. Apply the water by the spoonful or use a spray bottle to keep from dislodging the seeds.
Watch for germination in two to three weeks. Turn off the propagation mat one week after the seeds sprout. Move the pots into a cold frame outdoors or against a south-facing wall with noonday shade.
Transplant the butterfly weed into a permanent bed in spring just after the last frost. If planting butterfly weed in clay soil, dig in 2 to 4 inches of compost to lighten the soil, or consider building raised beds to increase drainage.
Spread a 1-inch-thick layer of mulch around each plant. Water weekly to a 2-inch depth during their first summer, then cease supplemental irrigation.
Butterfly Weed Care: How To Grow Asclepias Plant
The herbaceous perennial, Asclepias tuberosa (a.k.a. Butterfly Weed) makes an excellent addition to any garden, and especially suited to butterfly gardens.
This beautiful, blazing native plant relative of milkweed family, attracts butterflies, especially Monarch butterflies.
Bright orange butterfly weed cuts a striking figure in the garden and it does not have milky sap like other members of its family.
The Asclepias tuberosa is a type of plant that provides a very desirable alternative in areas where native milkweed may not grow well.
It is also a good addition to medicinal herb gardens as its name comes from the Greek god of healing and medicine, known as Asklepios.
Additionally, the Greek name pays tribute to legendary Greek herbalist Aesulapius.
The most popular form of butterfly weed plant is the orange milkweed variety, but it actually comes in several pretty shades including:
- Reddish Orange
- Bright Orange
- Dark Orange
These variations add a great deal of cheer and diversity to your wildflower and butterfly garden setting.
With its abundant, vigorous growth and bright cheery colors, butterfly weed, grows happily as full bushes 2′ feet high and 2′ feet wide, making it a joyful addition to any garden.
Apart from its flowers, it seed pods also holds a different kind of beauty.
Another notable plant from the same family is the tropical milkweed (Asclepias Curassavica).
It has become so popular among North American gardeners and monarch butterflies!
This non-native plant from North America makes the best host plant for monarch eggs.
Asclepias tuberosa grows back quickly after being eaten and you can easily propagate them.
Is Butterfly Weed Hard to Grow?
Nope! This native plant known as the pleurisy root is easy to grow and grows like a weed!
In the wild, you find it on the prairie, growing in depleted pasture soil, along roadsides and on the verge of very dry forests. When you come across butterfly weed in the wild, you should leave it alone.
Even though the Asclepias plant does reproduce fairly readily, it is never a good idea to disrupt it.
The plant provides important nourishment and resting places for very often endangered butterflies.
Is butterfly weed invasive?
While it is a very hardy plant that reseeds itself easily, it is not intrusive or invasive.
In fact, it spreads best by reseeding… replanting is not a very effective method of propagation for these plants.
That’s why it’s best to plant your own butterfly weed from seed.
Growing Asclepias tuberosa seed is very cheap, and butterfly weed flowers during the first growing season.
There’s no need to wait for plants to establish themselves before reaping the benefits.
Because so many gardeners now recognize how beneficial butterfly weed is to the garden, seeds are very readily available online and in local garden stores.
Growing Butterfly Weed From Seed Outdoors
Grow butterfly weed seed indoors or outdoors. For outdoor sowing, begin with a well-prepared bed. For best results, sow the seed late in autumn (mid-November).
Simply scatter seeds evenly in a prepared bed. Then cover seed lightly with a quarter inch of soil and water gently and deeply.
Don’t worry the cold of winter will not harm your seeds.
It is important that butterfly weed seeds experience several months of cold, moist conditions in order to germinate properly. In the springtime, your new seedlings will emerge.
Ideally, you will have planted them in their permanent location.
If not, transplant them to their permanent location before they get any taller than four inches. Remember they do not like their root systems disturbed.
It’s worth noting that you may wish to try planting butterfly weed in several different locations as it can be somewhat temperamental about conditions.
You may get less than stellar results in one part of your yard and superb results in another.
How To Grow Butterfly Weed Seed Indoors
You can start butterfly weed seeds indoors. To do this, you’ll need a garden flat filled with a good quality of well-moistened germination medium.
Just as with outdoor sowing, scatter the seeds evenly over the surface and press them lightly into the soil. Cover them lightly with a quarter of an inch of germination mixture and moisten the surface thoroughly.
Once you’ve sown the seeds, put the entire flat inside of a clear plastic bag and place it in your refrigerator.
Leave it there for month to six weeks and then remove it. This keeps the seed in an area with a steady temperature of 70° to 75° degrees Farhenheit.
It’s important to note that you should leave the plastic bag in place until your seedlings begin to sprout.
When you expose seeds to higher temperatures they will begin to germinate. This can take three or four weeks.
If a month passes and seedlings have not shown their heads, try putting the flat back into your refrigerator for another month or so. Then take it out and try again.
When seedlings do emerge, remove the plastic bag and place the flat under a fluorescent lamp in an area where the temperature remains a steady 60° to 65° degrees Fahrenheit.
When the seedlings have grown to one or two inches high, transplant into larger pots and continue caring for them with fluorescent lighting indoors until all danger of frost has passed.
[easy-tweet tweet=”Perennial Plant Association names the Butterfly Weed its 2017 perennial plant of the year.”]
The Dispatch shares that the Perennial Plant Association named the butterfly weed its 2017 perennial plant of the year. They shared…
That’s because butterfly weed — a top food source for both butterflies and caterpillars — has been named the perennial plant of the year for 2017 by the Perennial Plant Association, a national trade association based in Hilliard. Bees and other pollinators love it, too — as do gardeners, because it requires little care. Landscapes that feature these native beauties enjoy a steady stream of buzzing, creeping and fluttering visitors. Via dispatch.com
Butterfly Weed Care
It’s important to note that when you start your seeds indoors, you will need to transition gradually to their permanent outdoor setting.
As the days warm-up, set your seedlings outdoors in their pots in shaded areas for brief periods of time. Gradually extend the amount of time that they spend outdoors.
Also increase the amount of sunlight to which you expose them. Once plants hardened a bit and can tolerate outdoor conditions well, transplant them to their permanent setting where can enjoy the full sun.
How To Take Care Of A Weed Plant
For best milkweed plant care results, you should establish your orange butterfly plant garden in full sun. Be sure to choose the location carefully since plants grow very long tap roots.
Once established, moving them proves very difficult, and moving them tends to kill them.
Although this hardy native plant grows well in a wide variety of soils, the soil you provide needs good drainage.
Once well-established, butterfly weed becomes heat and drought tolerant.
Mark your established butterfly weed in your garden well. The reason? Plants take a while to emerge in the springtime.
If you don’t set a marker, you may accidentally replace them with something else before they reveal themselves in the spring.
Read our article about Aphids on Milkweed
Feeding Your Butterfly Weed
Remember butterfly weed grows best in well-drained soil that is not too rich and exposed to full sun.
Generally speaking, you don’t need to use synthetic fertilizers or other chemicals on your butterfly weed. It does best when nourished with natural, organic compost.
Because butterfly weed likes poor soil, you needn’t worry much about feeding it.
In the autumn, give it a light dressing of compost followed by a layer of mulch.
In the springtime, you may wish to give it a dose of slow release fertilizer as a boost to get the growing season started.