How To Grow Butterfly Weed From Seed

How To Grow Butterfly Weed (Asclepias tuberosa) If you would like to attract a continuous visitation from various butterflies and hummingbirds to your garden (who wouldn’t?), consider adding Learn how to grow and care for butterfly weed and milkweed in this article. Includes tips on planting, growing and types of butterfly weed in New England Butterfly weed is appropriately named, as the nectar- and pollen-rich flowers attract hummingbirds and hordes of butterflies, bees and other beneficial insects throughout the blooming season. Want to know more? Click here.

How To Grow Butterfly Weed (Asclepias tuberosa)

If you would like to attract a continuous visitation from various butterflies and hummingbirds to your garden (who wouldn’t?), consider adding butterfly weed to your flower garden beds this season. The one and a half to two and a half foot-tall perennial thrives in dry, sunny sites all across USDA hardiness zones three through nine. When mature, the butterfly weed boasts two to five inch clusters of yellow-orange to bright orange flowers.

The butterfly weed gets its name from providing the main food source for butterflies, specifically monarch’s, who use the butterfly weed as a host plant during their caterpillar and butterfly stages. The monarch, however, is not the only pollinator that is attracted to butterfly weed. Butterflies of all kinds, as well as honey bees, bumble bees, and hummingbirds, are all frequent visitors of the butterfly weed. Butterfly weed also attracts swallowtails, painted ladies, hairstreaks, and fritillaries. Unfortunately, patience is needed to enjoy what the butterfly weed can bring to your garden, as plants typically don’t flower until their third year. The wait may be long, but butterfly weed blooms do not disappoint. With a splendid array of bright orange flowers and a long list of frequent visitors, it is a good idea to have your camera ready.

An herbaceous member of the dogbane family, butterfly weed is native to the dry fields, prairies, meadows, woodlands, canyons, and hillsides of the eastern United States and Canada. It grows naturally in loamy or sandy well-drained soils in full sun locations. Butterfly weed is cultivated for its ornamental value and its flowers are used for the preparation of various cut flower bouquets.

Each butterfly weed plant develops an erect, multi-branched stem that grows around one to three feet high. Each branch is covered in hairs and becomes woody after a few years, developing flower clusters at the ends of each branch once the plant reaches maturity. Alternately arranged on the stem, butterfly weed leaves are lanceolate, linear, or oblong, with smooth edges and pointed tips. The upper side of the leaves are both darker and shinier than the under side.

Three years after planting, butterfly weed begins to produce bright orange flower clusters of small, five-petaled, star-shaped flowers. Blooming from May to September, butterfly weed packs a pollinator party throughout the growing season.

The fruit of the butterfly weed plant is a narrow greyish-green pod covered with hairs, which ripens at the end of summer or the beginning of fall. Each pod contains hundreds of seeds. The seeds are equipped with silky, white tufts of hair which help the seeds take flight on the wind to disperse and find new homes.

People and Pets Shouldn’t Eat It

All parts of the butterfly weed are toxic to both humans and animals. The flowers, stems, leaves, and root will all cause diarrhea and vomiting if ingested. Touching the sap could cause skin irritation. Eating just a small amount of butterfly weed can get you sick. This is even more of a danger with small animals, as tiny doses, as low as .01 to .05 percent of their body weight, could kill them. This is generally more of an issue with grazing animals than with pets, but exercise extreme caution with plant placement and seek immediate medical attention if you suspect that a child or pet has eaten butterfly weed.

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Varieties of Butterfly Weed

True orange is the typical flower color of the original hardy, species version that is often sold as Asclepias tuberosa. “Hollow Yellow” is a yellow flowered variety. “Cinderella” is a cultivar with pinkish-red colored flowers. “Gay Butterflies Mix” is a family of species, with plants in colors of red, orange and yellow.

The “Silky Mix,” or Asclepias curassavica, has several beautiful variations of the original A. tuberosa. Silky Deep Red Butterfly Weed bears flowers with yellow-orange crowns and deep red-orange corellas for a lovely two-toned bloom. Silky Scarlet is a tropical species that is a perennial in frost-free regions and an annual in regions that experience freezing temperatures. The Silky Scarlet produces blooms that range in color from salmon and bright pink, to shades of yellow, orange, and red. Silky Gold produces golden yellow flowers that bloom all year long in frost-free areas.

Growing Conditions for Butterfly Weed

Butterfly weed performs best in full sun locations but can adapt to some shade, as long as it receives at least six hours of direct sunlight per day. Butterfly weed is adapted to less-than-ideal soil conditions, and is well-suited to clay, dry, and even rocky soil and drought conditions. Hardy to USDA zones three through nine.

Care of Butterfly Weed

Keep butterfly weed well watered during its first season but don’t worry about watering it once it is established. No fertilization is needed for butterfly weed. Just a topdressing of compost or composted manure added once per year is all that is needed to provide nutrients for butterfly weed to thrive.

How to Plant Butterfly Weed

Sow butterfly weed seeds directly into the soil in the fall for spring sprouts, or sow indoors during the winter after cold stratification. Because of their long taproots, direct sowing is the preferred method of propagation.

How To Propagate Butterfly Weed

Butterfly weed can be propagated by seed or by root cuttings. Because butterfly weed has a long taproot, which can be very difficult to transplant, propagation by seed is highly recommended. Seeds can be harvested and saved around the beginning of fall. They can be brought indoors or can be buried in the ground just under the topsoil, to survive the winter, then planted directly into your garden beds in the early spring.

Companion Planting With Butterfly Weed

The following plants will all grow well with butterfly weed:

  • Coreopsis
  • Russian Sage
  • Coneflower
  • Catmint
  • Rudbeckia
  • Ornamental Grasses such as fountain grass, northern sea oats, or switchgrass

Garden Pests and Diseases of Butterfly Weed

If you grow your butterfly weed in a very wet location, crown and root rot can be an issue. Reduce the risk of crown rot by planting your butterfly weed in a hole with the crown set just slightly above the soil line. Reduce the risk of root rot by increasing soil drainage and by taking care not to overwater your butterfly weed plants.

Yellow-orange oleander aphids (Aphis nerii), or milkweed aphids, form colonies which envelop the plant’s stems and leaves as the pests feed on the sap. The pests excrete honeydew in massive amounts, a clear, gooey waste substance that attracts a black, sooty mold. The mold covers the plant in layers of powdery, soot-like fungal strands. Small infestations of oleander aphids can be treated by knocking them off with a burst of water from the watering hose. Heavier infestations may need multiple treatments of insecticidal soap or horticultural oils, sprayed to saturate stems and leaves.

Common Questions and Answers About Butterfly Weed

Do you fertilize butterfly weed?

Feed with compost in the fall, then top with a layer of mulch. In spring, feed with a diluted dose of slow release fertilizer blend.

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Does butterfly weed come back every year?

Yes, in zones where butterfly weed dies back in winter, it sprouts again in spring as a perennial.

Do you cut back butterfly weed in the fall?

Start with clean, sterilized gardening shears, and disinfect the tool when moving between plants. Wear gloves to protect yourself from the skin irritation butterfly weed can cause. Prune your butterfly weed between late winter and early spring before new growth sprouts. Cut the plant back to a third or half of its starting height. Make all your cuts no more than a quarter inch from a leaf or leaf node.

How do you propagate butterfly weed?

You can propagate butterfly weed from seed, via cuttings rooted in water, or by division or separation.

How often should I water butterfly weed?

Water young plants whenever the soil dries out to keep it moist until they’re well established and showing new growth. Once well established, butterfly weed should only need water during periods of extreme drought.

How tall does butterfly weed grow?

Butterfly weed grows to between one and a half and three feet tall when mature.

Is butterfly weed a perennial?

Butterfly weed is a perennial, which means they go dormant each winter and bounce back in the spring.

Is butterfly weed invasive?

Unlike common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca), butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa) does not have the quickly spreading roots that qualify it as invasive.

Is butterfly weed poisonous to humans, dogs, or cats?

Butterfly weed is toxic to both humans and pets. In humans, it requires large doses to cause discomfort, but because children, dogs, and cats are smaller, their risk is more substantial. Consumption of butterfly weed can cause bloating, fever, difficulty breathing, dilated pupils, muscle spasms, or death. For ingestion by humans, call the Poison Control Center at 800-222-1222, or for ingestion by animals, call ASPCA’s Animal Poison Control Hotline at 888-426-4435.

Want to learn more about growing Butterfly Weed?

Cornell University covers Butterfly Weed

Gardening with Charlie Nardozzi covers How to Grow Butterfly Weed

SFGate Homeguides covers Butterfly Weed Plant

Monarch Watch covers Milkweed

Plant Care Today covers Butterfly Weed Care

University of Wisconsin-Madison covers Butterflyweed

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Comments

Andrea Bloser says

I just bought eight baby asclepiousa
tuberosa. How much space does each plant need?

How to Grow: Butterfly Weed

Late summer to fall in colors of orange, red, yellow and pink.

Mature Height x Spread

2 to 4 feet x 2 to 4 feet

Added Benefits

Native, attracts hummingbirds, attracts beneficials, drought tolerant, deer resistant

This native has less stature, compared with the butterfly bush, but is just as effective at drawing in winged friends, such a butterflies, ladybugs and beneficial insects, into the garden. It’s particularly a favorite of the Monarch butterfly. Butterfly weed is also hardier and more adapted to a wider range of soils, making it a good choice if you’re having a hard time growing butterfly bush successfully. The plant is slow to emerge in spring, so don’t give up hope. My butterfly weed often will just start growing when other plants are fully leafed out around it. But it makes up for lost time quickly growing to 4 feet tall and wide with brightly colored flowers. Once growing it has few problems.

Where, When and How to Plant

Butterfly weed is hardy through New England. Sow seeds indoors in peat pots 6 to 8 weeks before your last frost date, thinning to one plant per pot. Or plant locally purchased plants in spring after danger of frost has passed or summer, in full sun on compost-amended, well-drained soil. Poor soil drainage is the one thing butterfly weed won’t stand. Space plants 2 to 3 feet apart. Butterfly weed has a taproot, so once planted it’s difficult to move.

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Growing Tips

Keep the plants well watered the first year and fertilize once in spring with compost. Butterfly weed is slow growing at first in our cool soils, so mark where you planted it so you accidentally don’t dig it up when planting annuals and other perennials in spring.

Regional Advice and Care

Deadhead spent flowers to encourage more flowering and reduce self-sowing. Weed out self-sown seedling each spring. Be carefully when pruning the plant as the stems have a milky sap that might be irritating to your skin. Cutback the plant to the ground in fall after a frost and compost it. It needs little care once established in the garden and can be drought tolerant. Aphids can sometimes be a problem and are easily controlled with sprays of insecticidal soap. Butterfly weed plants can withstand damage from the Monarch butterfly caterpillars. Don’t spray to kill them or you’ll not have any beautiful butterflies.

Companion Planting and Design

Plant butterfly weed in a perennial garden close to where you can view the butterflies from a window or deck. Since butterfly weed can have loud, hot flower colors, pair it in the garden with complimentary colored perennials, such as Russian sage, coneflowers and ornamental grasses. It can also be grown in the cut flower garden for arrangements.

Orange is the native flower color of the hardy, species version and it’s often sold just as Ascelpias tuberosa. “Hollow Yellow” is a yellow flowered version. “Cinderella” has pinkish-red colored flowers. “Gay Butterflies Mix” has plants in colors of red, orange and yellow.

Growing Butterfly Weed Plants: Tips On Butterfly Weed Care

What is a butterfly weed? Butterfly weed plants (Asclepias tuberosa) are trouble-free North American natives that produce umbels of bright orange, yellow, or red blooms all summer long. Butterfly weed is appropriately named, as the nectar and pollen rich flowers attract hummingbirds and hordes of butterflies, bees, and other beneficial insects throughout the blooming season. Do you want to know more about how to grow butterfly weed? Read on.

Butterfly Weed Characteristics

Butterfly weed plants are milkweed cousins with tall, clumping perennials that reach heights of 12 to 36 inches (31-91 cm.). The blooms appear atop fuzzy, green stems, which are adorned by attractive, lance-shaped leaves. Butterfly weed plants spread by way of seeds, which are released from large pods in early autumn.

Butterfly weed grows wild in a variety of environments, including open woods, prairies, dry fields, meadows, and along roadsides. In the garden, butterfly weed looks great in wildflower meadows, borders, rock gardens, or mass plantings.

How to Grow Butterfly Weed

Growing butterfly weed requires very little effort. The plant, suitable for growing in USDA plant hardiness zones 3 through 9, thrives in bright sunlight and poor, dry, sandy, or gravelly soil with a slightly acidic or neutral pH.

Butterfly weed plants are easy to grow by seed, but may not produce blooms for two or three years. Once established, butterfly weed is drought tolerant and blooms dependably from year to year. Also, keep in mind that butterfly weed has long, sturdy roots that make transplantation very difficult, so locate the plant in its permanent place in the garden.

Butterfly Weed Care

Keep the soil moist until the plant is established and showing new growth. Thereafter, water only occasionally, as butterfly weed plants prefer dry soil. Trim old growth every spring to keep them neat and healthy.

No fertilizer is required and may even harm the plant.

Mealybugs and aphids may cause problems during the blooming season, but both are easily controlled by regular applications of insecticidal soap or horticultural oil.