Butterfly Weed – Asclepias tuberosa

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BUTTERFLY WEED ( Asclepias tuberosa) belongs to the  Milkweed family

Riding along the winding roads of the area in mid to late summer, one will spy a bright orange cluster of flowers growing along sunny banks on stalks that are about two feet high.

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 The Butterfly Weed is aptly named because it really does attract butterflies, bees,  and humming birds that love its nectar.  It prefers dry, sandy soil and grows from a deeply rooted tuber standing erect with leafy stalks that reach a height of 3 feet.  Although it is a milkweed, the plant does not have the milky sap exuding from its stalk if you cut it, like most other milkweeds.

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Asclepias tuberosa is also known as “Chigger Weed” and  “Orange Milkweed”. Teas and a tonic mixed with rum or alcohol were made with the root of this plant and used both by Indians and settlers as a cure for pleurisy and other lung problems, hence the plant is  known as “Pleurisy Root” as well.   Poultices from the root were used topically for bruises, swelling, and rheumatic pain.

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Butterfly weed is a good addition to the garden. It requires full sun and likes soil that is not too rich or too moist and definitely does not like to be mulched, even in winter.   Shown here with coreopsis, Carolina phlox, oxeyed daisies, and black cohosh in the background.  If you are lucky to have some butterfly weed plants you can transplant, be advised that the tubers, which look a lot like yams or sweet potatoes both in color and in shape, don’t take to transplanting too readily. They might do well the first year but then give up and are gone.

Although it takes three or four years from planting the seeds of the butterfly weed plant until it will flower, it is a good and more sustainable approach.

asclepias tuberosa seed pods_5After the plant flowers it begins producing seed pods.  They will be green at first, but then as they mature they will turn to a crimson color.  The pod become dry and hard and then bursts expelling the seeds which are about 1/8″ in size – good large seeds! The seeds have a little tuff of white fluff attached to them which make them float in the breeze and hopefully land where they might germinate.Of course, germination escalates when seeds are gathered, cleaned, and planted in a bed of rich soil.  We have several “seed beds”.  We are not a commercial nursery, so it is not essential that we produce a lot of plants, so our seed-to-plant projects are very casual.

In the case of the butterfly weed, we loosen soil in which we amend commercial “garden soil” and also a bit of manure.  We plant the seeds about 2 inches apart and cover them with soil.  butterfly weed does not like to bury itself in leaf mold, as do many plants, so we don’t mulch the seed bed. The next spring small plants looking exactly like the mature plants will spring and grow about 6 inches the first year.  At the end of the first summer we carefully move the little plant with its tiny tuber into a flower bed.  This time, because the little plant is very vulnerable, we mulch it and label it so it won’t be lost in the shuffle in the spring.

Young butterfly weed plants are very tender and fragile and take 3 or 4 years to present with a strong stalk that will withstand the activity of a mountain garden – yes, I mean high winds, the deer, wild turkeys,  rabbits, dogs and other visiting critters such as this doe who visited the garden during a rain storm seen looking longingly at the bright orange milkweeds on the lower left.

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As the plant matures, the tuber buries itself deeper and deeper into the ground.  If you are tempted to dig up a plant, be prepared to take a long spade or even better, a mattock digging around and around the plant until you come to the buried tuber.

A delight when seen on road-banks and a great addition to the garden, it is one of my favorite plants… here photographed with an Appalachian swallowtail butterfly.

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To print a PDF page, click here: Butterfly weed

To learn more about our milkweeds, click here: Milkweeds in Nantahala

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