Butterfly weed: 2017 Perennial of the Year

Published 7:23 am Thursday, January 5, 2017

You probably know it as that bright patch of orange you see when you’re driving along back roads in our area in mid-summer. If you’ve recently planted a butterfly garden, you already appreciate this bright-colored plant as a veritable butterfly magnet. What is it? It’s Butterfly weed, also called chigger weed or pleurisy root, (Asclepias tuberosa). It’s native to much of the United States, as well as parts of Canada.

It’s not unusual to find bees, wasps, butterflies and hummingbirds visiting butterfly weed blooms for nectar. What’s more, butterfly weed is the larval host for Monarchs, the Gray Hairstreak and Queens.

Butterfly weed was recently named the Perennial Plant Association’s 2017 Plant of the Year. And it’s a great choice.

Butterfly weed generally grows 1-1/2 to 3 feet tall. It has attractive, stiff-lance shaped leaves that are dark green on top and lighter green on the reverse side. The stems are hairy and contain little of the sap typical of other milkweeds. The small orange blooms are arranged in a flat-topped cluster and have a characteristic five down and five up appearance, meaning that five petals point downward and five curved petals known as hoods point up.  

Butterfly weed is hardy in Zones 4 to 9. It grows best in full sun in well-drained, sandy soil and is relatively drought tolerant once it’s established. What’s more, deer don’t seem to enjoy it.  

Aphids are the only pests that tend to bother butterfly weed, and they can usually be managed by spraying the affected plants with a high-pressure stream of water from a hose.

Butterfly weed isn’t a finicky plant. There are only several key factors to remember. Butterfly weed needs good drainage to prevent crown rot and doesn’t like to be moved once it has become established, so pay careful attention to site selection. This plant has a long tap root that makes transplanting a mature plant difficult. To keep plants from becoming leggy, cut them back once in early spring. Mulch them in late fall to prevent them from being pushed out of the soil by repeated freeze/thaw cycles.

How to show off this plant? Plant masses of it in mixed perennial borders to produce eye-popping waves of orange. Interplant butterfly weed with other sun-loving perennials, such as daylilies, Salvia, and Echinacea, especially in a location where you can observe daily visitors to the cheery blooms.

Butterfly weed is a native plant that’s beautiful, easy to grow, and readily available at most garden centers. Try some this year. The bees, wasps and butterflies will thank you.

Cynthia Wood is a master gardener who writes two columns for The Herald. Her email address is Cynthia.crewe23930@gmail.com