Plant Spotlight: Butterfly Weed

Natural or native landscapes are becoming more and more popular. Butterfly Weed (Asclepias tuberosa) is a wonderful addition to a naturalized garden and works well as a butterfly attractor. It is native prairie plant in the Midwestern United States, but grown all over the country in garden zones 4-10. It has the distinct honor of being smothered with butterflies throughout most of the summer. The plant is a relative to the common milkweed. The flowers are typically orange, although sometimes yellow-ish, and very sweet smelling. Beneficially, the plant does not have the sticky-sap associated with the taller Asclepias varieties.

When, Where, and How to Plant

Butterfly weed prefers poor soil over rich, but will grow almost anywhere. The plant does not like wet feet; the native can handle some moisture, but prefers a well-drained bed. Amend soil to create proper drainage if necessary.

Start either from potted plants or seed, although it can be challenging to start from seed. Butterfly weed seed can be started indoors or sown directly in the soil in the fall or early winter, but perform significantly better when exposed to up to six weeks of cold conditions before they will produce growth and can take up to 3 years to develop flowers. New butterfly weed plants may benefit from a weekly watering until the taproot is well established. After that, only water if there is an ongoing drought.

Growing Tips

Be sure to place the butterfly weed in its permanent location because its long tap root is not easily dug up and if it is broken during transplanting the plant often dies. For more abundant flower production, deadhead regularly. There are no regular insect or disease issues.

SPECIAL NOTE: This plant is considered toxic and has a natural defense mechanism; insects eat the toxins within the nectar and become toxic and distasteful to their natural predators. Be sure to keep small children and animals away from touching or eating the plants as these toxins can harm mammals.

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