Butterfly weed is a bright and beautiful perennial that will add a lot to your garden. True to its name, this plant attracts butterflies, including the endangered monarch butterfly.
It also fills your garden with warm color and once established will return to bloom year after year. Butterfly weed is a very easy plant to care for and a perfect choice for a pollinator garden.
Here’s everything you need to know about how to grow and care for butterfly weed.
What Is Butterfly Weed?
Butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa) is a native plant that comes from the prairie regions of the midwestern United States. It goes by several other names including orange milkweed, pleurisy root, and Indian paintbrush.
Closely related to common milkweed (A. syriaca) but more ornamental, butterfly weed is not a weed at all. It’s a native wildflower that looks beautiful and is a vital plant for our native pollinators.
Butterfly weed should not be confused with butterfly bush, a non-native plant that is considered invasive throughout most of the U.S. In fact, it’s a good alternative to butterfly bush, which can crowd out native plants that are important for wildlife.
Butterfly weed blooms with bright orange flowers that are attractive to butterflies and humans alike. It’s an easy-to-grow and beautiful plant to add to your garden.
As far as appearance, butterfly weed will bloom with cheerful orange blossoms that make beautiful cut flowers. It grows 2-4’ tall and will spread the same distance wide.
You can grow it as a perennial in USDA hardiness zones 3-9.
Benefits of Butterfly Weed
All milkweed plants are vital to the life cycle of monarch butterflies.
A little known fact is that monarch caterpillars feed only on milkweed species. Other plants can provide nectar for the adult butterflies, but without butterfly weed and other varieties of milkweed, the caterpillars can’t survive.
This is one reason plants with names like butterfly bush are misleading. They do attract butterflies with nectar but don’t actually provide for their whole life cycle.
Besides monarchs, planting butterfly weed will bring a host of other pollinators to your garden. You’re likely to see honeybees, native bees, other types of butterflies, butterfly moths, and hummingbirds.
All types of milkweed are very important for monarch butterflies. They are the only kind of plant monarch caterpillars will feed on, and the flowers provide nectar for the adults.
Another benefit is that established plants are drought-tolerant and resistant to deer and other hungry critters. They have few pest problems and adapt to a wide range of soils.
Plus, the bright orange blooms look beautiful from summer to fall!
The straight species Asclepias tuberosa has brilliant orange blooms. However, there are a few cultivars that range from orange to yellow to red.
- ‘Hello Yellow’– Cultivar with cheerful yellow flowers that are larger than the orange species.
- ‘Gay Butterflies’– This is a mix of three different colors: red, golden-yellow, and orange. Flowerheads are 5” across and typically bloom June to frost.
- Asclepias incarnata ‘Cinderella’– Sometimes called butterfly weed, this variety is technically swamp milkweed. It has lovely, showy pink blooms and will attract lots of butterflies and hummingbirds.
Tips for Growing Butterfly Weed
Once established in your garden, butterfly weed will come back year after year with few problems. However, there are a few important tips to know for getting it started growing.
- Butterfly weed puts down a long taproot, which means that it doesn’t do well with being transplanted. Try to put your plants or seeds in their permanent locations from the start. They may not survive if you try to move them from one location to another after being established.
Try to put seeds or plants in their permanent locations right away. Butterfly weed does not like to be transplanted or have its roots disturbed in any way. However, plants do grow well from seed.
- Unlike many other perennials, butterfly weed grows well from seed. Planting by seed in the fall is the best growing choice because it means you don’t have to move the plants at all.
- Butterfly weed will adapt to a wide range of soil conditions including dry, sandy, and rocky soils and those with poor fertility. However, it does not like wet feet, so try to plant it somewhere that drains well.
- Plants will come back up every year, but butterfly weed tends to get a slow start in the spring. It’s best to use some kind of marker so that you know where plants are and don’t accidentally dig them up when planting annuals. Be patient and don’t worry if you don’t see them pop up right away with other spring flowers.
How to Grow Butterfly Weed
Butterfly weed grows easily but prefers a location with full sun. It goes well with many other perennials and is especially suited for wildflower meadows, native pollinator gardens, borders, rock gardens, and mass plantings.
Starting by Seed Outdoors
Starting butterfly weed from seed in the fall is the best growing method. As mentioned, the plants do not like to be moved, so sowing the seeds where you want the plants to grow is the best solution.
The seeds need the cold period of winter in order to germinate in the spring. You can sow them directly into your garden in late fall (usually November).
First, prepare the garden bed or area you will be seeding by weeding and smoothing out the soil. Make sure the area you’ve chosen drains well, and mix in some homemade compost for extra fertility and drainage.
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Then, sow the seeds 4-6” inches apart (you can thin them in the spring when they sprout).
You don’t need to worry about watering or caring for the seeds through the winter. The cold and moisture that naturally come from snow and rain will tell them when to start growing.
All you have to do is watch for them to come up in the spring!
Starting by Seed Indoors
If starting seeds outdoors isn’t practical, you can also do it indoors in late winter or early spring.
Before you start seeds you need to give them cold stratification just like they would get outside. You can do this by filling a plastic bag with damp sand and spreading the seeds out on top. Keep them in your refrigerator for 1-3 months until you’re ready for them.
For best results, sow seeds in peat pots instead of flats. That way you can plant the peat pots directly in the ground without disturbing the roots.
Fill peat pots with a good quality potting mix. Use potting mix instead of seed starting mix so that plants will have some fertilizer as they grow since you aren’t going to be transplanting them at all. Make sure you get the potting mix wet but not dripping.
If you start seeds indoors, use peat pots like those in the picture instead of normal seed starting trays. This allows seedlings to be planted without disturbing the roots.
Another tip is to get the peat pots wet before filling them with soil. Dry peat will wick moisture away from the soil and plant roots. You can do this by filling a sink with water and submerging the pots.
After you have your pots filled, sow one or two seeds in each pot. Start seeds 6-8 weeks before your last average frost date.
Once seeds have germinated, you can thin them out to one per pot. Keep pots watered and under fluorescent lighting or somewhere with a good amount of sunlight. You can run a fan for 15 minutes twice a day to make sure they have good airflow.
Start to harden plants off a week or two before planting by bringing them outside during the day and back in at night.
Planting Butterfly Weed
Whether you started your own seeds or bought transplants, the key to planting butterfly weed is to disturb the roots as little as possible.
If you grew your own seedlings in peat pots, you can plant them as is. The pot will break down in the soil over time, but you can gently tear the bottom off to allow the roots to get through more easily.
You can start planting outdoors after all danger of frost has passed. Be gentle with plant roots and disturb them as little as possible.
Plant outdoors after all danger of frost has passed. Select a spot that gets full sun and has well-drained soil. Amend soil with compost if needed but little other preparation is required.
Dig a hole (or holes) slightly deeper and wider than the rootball of your plants. Butterfly weed looks great when planted in masses, but make sure you space plants 1-2’ apart.
Give seedlings plenty of water while they get established. After this, you can cut back on the watering since this native flower does very well in dry conditions. Watering too much will actually make plants unhappy.
Butterfly Weed Care
After your plants get established, they are very easy to care for.
Like many other native plants, butterfly weed does not need fertilizer and will likely do better without it. You can, however, topdress it with compost or rotted manure once per year.
Mulch is commonly used in the garden to help retain soil moisture and to keep weeds down, but butterfly weed will do better without any. It does not like wet soil, so mulch is likely to do more harm than good.
Deadhead spent flowers to keep your plants blooming for longer. You can leave some flowers on to develop into seed heads that look attractive during the winter months, but be aware that milkweeds spread by seed.
Once established, butterfly weed is very easy to care for. A little deadheading will keep plants blooming for longer, and you can enjoy the sight of butterflies flocking to the flowers.
Butterfly weed is not invasive, but it will start to spread in your garden if unattended to. You can either clip off seed heads before they open and drop seeds, or you can simply pull up any seedlings that have sprouted in the spring.
If you want more plants around your garden, collect the seeds as they ripen and lay them down in the fall in the area(s) you want new plants.
A big benefit to butterfly weed is that it rarely has pest or disease problems.
Occasionally, aphids can be a problem, but you can deal with them by spraying plants with a hose. In wet soils, plants can develop root or crown rot and may grow poorly. You can only deal with this by preventing it and planting in well-drained soil.
If you see caterpillars crawling on your plants and eating the leaves, do not kill them! These are likely either monarch caterpillars or the larvae of another type of butterfly.
Plants will easily withstand any damage done to them by caterpillars, and you’ll have beautiful butterflies hatching next spring.
You may also see black and orange milkweed bugs (Oncopeltus fasciatus) on your plants. They do feed on the leaves, stems, and seeds of different types of milkweeds, but rarely do enough damage to harm the plants.
If you see this cute caterpillar feeding on the leaves, don’t panic! This is a monarch caterpillar that will transform into a butterfly in the spring. Let them eat in peace- your plants will be fine.
Companion Plant and Garden Design
As you might imagine, butterfly weed is a great companion plant because it draws in pollinators and beneficial insects.
You can plant it as a border around a vegetable, fruit, or herb garden, and it makes an excellent plant for a native wildflower garden or meadow. Plant it with other perennials that feed pollinators at different times of the year to support them throughout the whole growing season.
As far as garden design goes, you’ll definitely want to plant butterfly weed where you’ll see it often so that you can enjoy the butterflies that flock to it.
The orange or yellow blooms go well with purple coneflower, Russian sage, catmint, and rudbeckia (black-eyed Susan). It also looks good with ornamental grasses and other native plants like goldenrod.
For a contrast, plant butterfly weed with the blue, purple, or rose-colored blooms of perennials like aster, balloon flower, and Joe Pye weed. For complementary colors, pair it with varieties of coreopsis.
Butterfly weed pairs well with many other perennials and native plants, including purple coneflower.
Enjoying Your Butterfly Weed
You want to leave enough flowers for butterflies and other pollinators to snack on, but that doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy some for yourself.
Besides enjoying the display butterfly weed puts on, you can also use some stems for cut flower arrangements. The seed pods that develop in late summer and fall are very decorative and make a unique addition to flower arrangements.
Bloom time is typically from July to September or early October, and you can keep plants flowering longer by deadheading.