Today, I wanted to get back to writing about perennials. I was about to write about landscapers favorite perennials. Instead lets talk about the one perennial landscapers SHOULD be using but typically don’t, the Butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa).
If you are unfamiliar with this plant, the first question you will probably ask is “why should I be planting anything with weed in the name?”
I’ll try to answer that now.
Pronounced: ah-SKLEE-pee-us too-ber-OH-sah
Last year I purchased two Butterfly weeds at a local nursery. They were in one gallon pots barely starting to grow. They were labelled “Butterfly Plant”. Thankfully they also had the plants Latin name, so I could correctly identify them.
So why is it called Butterfly WEED?
Butterfly Weed was given another common name, Pleurisy Root. Pleurisy is swelling of the thin layers of tissue (pleura) covering the lungs. When the pleura becomes inflamed, the layers rub together, causing chest pain. Ouch!
The Indians discovered that chewing this plants tough root was a cure for pleurisy, hence it’s other name as Pleurisy Root. Although I doubt you will see it labeled that at your local nursery.
Your grandfather may have called it “railroad Annie” because it often grows along railroad tracks.
Another name it is sometimes called is Orange Milkweed. Although that is not really right as this plant has no milky sap. It is however in the same Genus (Asclepias) as the Milkweeds. Hence, the WEED part of it’s common name.
Asclepias (including Butteryfly weed)
The members of the Asclepias are poster children for HOST-PLANT relationships thanks to the Monarch butterfly. Plants in the Asclepias genus produce a chemical that makes them toxic to most bugs that want to eat them. Monarch butterfly caterpillars are not bothered by the toxin.
To take advantage of this unique ability, Milkweed and other Asclepias are the only plants on which monarch butterflies will lay their eggs. Thanks mostly to Roundup ready corn and the massive increase in the use of Roundup by farmers, Milkweed populations have dropped dramatically in the last two decades.
This has resulted in massive drop of Monarch butterfly numbers. Their numbers have dropped an astonishing 96.5 percent, from an estimated 1 billion in the mid-1990s to just 35 million in early 2014. Extinction within years is considered a possibility.
And the “Butterfly” Part?
You might think that the “Butterfly” part of their name is because planting Butterfly Weed can provide the monarchs with a place to lay eggs.
While this is reason enough to plant this wonderful little perennial, it’s not the reason for it’s name.
The reason these are called Butterfly Weed is because its colorful blooms attract butterflies in masses:
Hardiness zones: 4 – 9
Size: Grows 2 to 3 feet tall. They also spread from 1 to 2 feet wide.
Soil: Average soil that is well drained is fine. Tolerates acidic to neutral soils (5.6-7.5 pH), drought and low fertility soils. Does not tolerate heavy clay soils, although Prairie Nursery sells a variety that supposedly does.
Light: They want Full sun to prosper, but can handle a bit of shade.
Flowers: Bright yellow to orange flowers appear between June and August. Blooms borne in dense, flattened clusters atop the plant stems. Best displayed in a mass.
Fruit: Not ornamental, it does self-seed a little bit, but despite it’s name it is not weedy in the garden. Some easy to pull the seedlings that will pop up around the plant. You can cut off pods before they open to prevent it from setting seed.
Fall Color: Not significant.
Wildlife Value: Extremely valuable to pollinators and other insects! Reason alone to plant it. Deer and other mammals leave it alone. It’s flowers attract numerous butterflies, moths, bees, and moths. It is a larval host plant to: Monarch Butterfly, Queen Butterfly and Milkweed Tussock Moth. The cool looking Milkweed leaf beetle feeds on it’s foliage.
Its also native to most of the US.
Verdict: Fantastic plant, HIGHLY recommended. Easy care once established. I recommend you buy small plants in 1 Gallon containers or smaller in Spring. You can also directly sow seeds in the garden if you have patience, as they will take a couple of years to flower if grown from seed.
If you like butterflies, you should definitely plant several of these instead of invasive, often recommended plants like Butterfly bush.
Don’t EVER use ANY insecticides near this plant. It also will never need any fertilizer. There is no reason to use any chemicals near this plant. You WANT insects chewing on this plant, so plant it somewhere you won’t mind if the foliage gets a little eaten up, but close enough you can see the flowers and go see whose been visiting!
Just plant it, water it until it is established and enjoy the visitors it gets!