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How to Grow Butterfly Weed (Asclepias Tuberosa)

Updated on June 2, 2017
The Dirt Farmer profile image

Jill volunteers at community gardens & learns about gardening through the MD Master Gardening Program & MD Master Naturalist Program.

ASCLEPIAS TUBEROSA

Loved by beneficial bugs, hummingbirds & butterflies

Pollinators love butterfly weed!
Pollinators love butterfly weed! | Source

Asclepias tuberosa, commonly called butterfly weed, orange milkweed and butterfly milkweed, is a wildflower native to most of the U.S and Canada. It grows wild in some of the harshest locales, contributing a splash of vivid color in summer to the otherwise dreary, grassy expanses along roadsides, in dry fields and in shale barrens.

A herbaceous perennial, butterfly weed is hardy in USDA Zones 3-10. Its roots and crown live throughout winter, but in colder regions, its tender stems die back and emerge again in spring.

Butterflyweed, butterfly milkweed, butterfly flower—Asclepias tuberosa goes by many names.
Butterflyweed, butterfly milkweed, butterfly flower—Asclepias tuberosa goes by many names. | Source

Plant Asclepias tuberosa in an informal herbaceous border, wildflower garden or butterfly garden. Or, use it to add color to the edges of your lawn in that no man's land where turf meets woodland.

Butterfly weed is a relatively short, bushy plant, reaching heights of only 1 to 3 feet tall. From mid to late summer, it produces cheerful clusters of bright orange flowers.

Like milkweed, to whom it is related, butterfly weed attracts hummingbirds, beneficial insects and, of course, butterflies—especially when it's planted in large clumps. It also produces attractive seed pods that ripen in the fall.

Plant Profile

Light
Soil
Water
full sun to part shade
loamy or sandy
dry to moist
Soil pH
Height
Flowers
4.8-6.8
1-3 ft.
orange clusters
Type
Lifespan
Fruit
herbaceous
perennial
pods

Growing Requirements

As the flower heads of butterfly weed open, the intensity of its small orange flowers increase in intensity.
As the flower heads of butterfly weed open, the intensity of its small orange flowers increase in intensity. | Source

Butterfly Weed in Spring

Keeping Track of Butterfly Weed

Asclepias tuberosa is a herbaceous perennial that's a slow starter. In fact, it will probably be among the last of the herbaceous perennials in your garden to set new growth in the spring. For this reason, you may want to mark its location so that you don't accidentally plant over it.

Because it tolerates a wide range of conditions, Asclepias tuberosa is an easy plant to grow in the home landscape.

Butterfly weed performs best in full sun (6-8 hours per day) but also grows well in partial shade (4 hours per day). It prefers dry soil but will grow in moist soil, too. And butterfly weed does just as well when planted in loam as it does in sandy soil. It doesn't mind an acidic growing medium either, thriving in soil that has a pH anywhere from 4.8 to 6.8.

A caterpillar hangs out on butterfly weed, which is closely related to milkweed.
A caterpillar hangs out on butterfly weed, which is closely related to milkweed. | Source

Transplanting Butterfly Weed

If purchasing Asclepias tuberosa at a greenhouse, be sure to select a young plant. Probably because of their long taproots, mature butterfly weed plants do not transplant well. For this reason, although dividing it every 2 to 3 years will improve the plant's appearance, propagating butterfly weed by division is usually unsuccessful.

The easiest way to start a butterfly weed plant (next to buying a seedling) is to grow it from seed yourself, either sowing Asclepias tuberosa directly outdoors or starting it from seed indoors in the fall or early spring.

Alternatively, if you already have Asclepias tuberosa in your garden, you could let its pods go to seed, allowing the plant to spread on its own. Although mature butterfly weed plants do not transplant well, seedlings do.


Starting Butterfly Weed from Seed

Butterfly weed pods "explode" with seed as they dry.
Butterfly weed pods "explode" with seed as they dry. | Source

Asclepias tuberosa seeds can be sown in the fall or the spring.

Although they won't be large, butterfly weed plants that are started from seed in the fall will flower their first summer. Those sown in spring will develop into larger plants that flower their second summer.

In the Fall

To start Asclepias tuberosa from seed in the fall, begin in August. First, place the seed in a baggie filled with moist peat moss or put it on a damp paper towel and then place it in a plastic bag. Store the seed in the refrigerator for 2 to 3 months. (Like bee balm seeds, coneflower seeds and many others, butterfly weed seed germinates best after stratification, a period of damp coldness.)

After the stratification period, sow butterfly weed seed directly outside. No need to plant deep. About an 1/8 of an inch down will do. It can take as little as 30 days or as long as 90 days for the seed to germinate. During the germination and seedling stages, be sure to keep the ground moist and protected from wind.

If beginning butterfly weed seed indoors, transplant seedlings outside once the weather has warmed and the plants have developed 4 to 6 leaves.

In the Spring

With its soft, creamy Orangesicle color, butterfly weed flower buds have a delicate beauty.
With its soft, creamy Orangesicle color, butterfly weed flower buds have a delicate beauty. | Source

Butterfly weed seed can be started in the same manner in late March or April.

Over the summer, the seedlings will grow into large plants; however, they won't bloom until the following year.


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Planning a Butterfly Garden

When creating a landscape to attract butterflies (and hummingbirds), arrange butterfly weed and other plants that butterflies love in large clumps. Your goal? To create showy flower displays that butterflies will notice.

Also be sure to plant a variety of flowers in your butterfly garden so that something is in bloom at all times from spring into fall.

Butterflies are attracted to many flowering plants in addition to butterfly weed, including asters, bergamot, butterfly bushes, common milkweed, cosmos, dogbane, goldenrod, heliotrope, impatiens, Joe Pye weed, marigold, phlox, Queen Anne's lace, swamp milkweed and zinnia.

Like Asclepias tuberosa, swamp milkweed (Aesclepias incarnata) is a favorite of butterflies.
Like Asclepias tuberosa, swamp milkweed (Aesclepias incarnata) is a favorite of butterflies. | Source

© 2012 Jill Spencer

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    • The Dirt Farmer profile imageAUTHOR

      Jill Spencer 

      15 months ago from United States

      Hi Amy. Neither rabbits or deer should eat it down, although they might take a tentative bite. In the bed where ours is spreading, I do not protect it with wire, unlike other plants there, such as blue false indigo and golden alexanders.

    • profile image

      Amy 

      15 months ago

      Do the rabbits like Asclepius tuberosa? Do I need to fence off my new plant from the nursery?

    • The Dirt Farmer profile imageAUTHOR

      Jill Spencer 

      2 years ago from United States

      Hi Hall, If you plant the seeds in the fall, they do bloom the first year.

    • profile image

      Hall 

      2 years ago

      Contrary to your above statement that Asclepias tuberose will not bloom the first year from seed, mine did just last summer.

    • The Dirt Farmer profile imageAUTHOR

      Jill Spencer 

      6 years ago from United States

      Hi Pavlo! We grow Buddleia here, too. It really spreads, doesn't it? But the butterflies do seem to love it. Thanks for reading. Take care! Jill

    • Pavlo Badovskyy profile image

      Pavlo Badovskyi 

      6 years ago from Kyiv, Ukraine

      Interesting hub! There is an other plant which attracts butterflies - budlea davidii. We have always 3-4 of butterflies on one plant.

    • The Dirt Farmer profile imageAUTHOR

      Jill Spencer 

      6 years ago from United States

      Hi Glimmer Twin Fan! Yep, butterfly weed does need some sun. You must have a really shady garden. Thanks for reading! -- Jill

    • The Dirt Farmer profile imageAUTHOR

      Jill Spencer 

      6 years ago from United States

      Thanks, mslizzee! If I ever do manage to write a book, I'll remember that! (: Glad you stopped by & commented.

    • Glimmer Twin Fan profile image

      Claudia Mitchell 

      6 years ago

      Loved this butterfly weed when I lived in Maryland. It attracted so many butterflies. Unfortunately we've moved to Northwestern PA and it's too moist and shady where we are. I miss it in my garden. Beautiful hub Dirt Farmer.

    • mslizzee profile image

      elizabeth 

      6 years ago from Buncombe County, NC

      You really need to put a little book together. Your writing, tips, info is fabulous. I'd buy your book:)

    • The Dirt Farmer profile imageAUTHOR

      Jill Spencer 

      6 years ago from United States

      Hey Lee! There's been a big push here in MD for gardeners to grow hardy native plants like butterfly weed, probably to keep them from using pesticides. Although I don't use pesticides anyway, my husband and I made an all-native landscaping island this past spring, and we're doing another one this fall along a wooded area. I definitely intend to sow some butterfly weed there from the our own seeds! Thanks for commenting! --Jill

    • chefsref profile image

      Lee Raynor 

      6 years ago from Citra Florida

      Hey Jill

      Love the photos, beautiful. I had forgotten about this plant but I know it does well in Florida

    • The Dirt Farmer profile imageAUTHOR

      Jill Spencer 

      6 years ago from United States

      Hi Act 3! I really like Asclepias tuberosa, too--especially knowing that I'm helping to feed so many butterflies when I grow it. Thanks for reading & commenting!

    • Act 3 profile image

      chet thomas 

      6 years ago from Athens, GA

      One of my favorite native plants. Thanks for the info!

    • The Dirt Farmer profile imageAUTHOR

      Jill Spencer 

      6 years ago from United States

      Thanks, Faith. Butterfly weed is a cheerful looking flower, and it's loaded with the nectar butterflies love. Thanks for reading! --Jill

    • Faith Reaper profile image

      Faith Reaper 

      6 years ago from southern USA

      Wow, a weed, so beautiful to attrack other beautiful living creatures. How wonderful. Love this hub. In His Love, Faith Reaper

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