Butterfly Weed 101 – Ultimate Grow & Care Guide!


Want a hardy perennial that brings in all the pollinators, helps Monarch Butterflies, and looks beautiful? Need a bright orange flower that doesn’t get too big, blooms a long time, and looks cool right up to winter? Then Butterfly Weed is for you! I’ve germinated and grown hundreds of Butterfly weeds over the last six years, and I will share all that I know in this article!

Butterfly Weed is a showy perennial flower native to Eastern North America. Scientifically known as Asclepias Tuberosa, it will grow to about 2′ tall by 1-1/2′ wide, and bloom bright orange flowers for up to two months. As a milkweed, it serves as a host for Monarch Butterflies, & attracts numerous other pollinators.

Before going further, let me show you how I’ve organized this article. I’ve broken it into 5 linked sections:

Butterfly Weed Reference Table

Common NameButterfly Weed, Orange Milkweed, Pleurisy Root
Scientific nameAsclepias tuberosa
Native RangeEastern United States
Growing Zone, Hardiness ZoneUSDA Zones 3-9
Bloom TimeJune-August
Bloom Duration, Color4-8 weeks, Orange
Butterfly Weed Height18″-24″ (45cm – 75cm)
Spacing / Width1-2’ (30-60cm)
Light RequirementsFull sun
Soil TypesSand, Loam. But will work in clay if well drained.
MoistureDry to Medium Moisture
Fauna Associations / Larval HostHumming birds, bees [1], butterflies / Monarch Butterfly, Queen Butterfly, Gray Hairstreak
Sowing DepthSurface, or just under soil
StratificationMost references say 30 days, although I’ve never bothered.  So probably not required

What is Butterfly Weed

Butterfly Weed is a herbaceous perennial native to North America. It produces showy orange flowers for up to two months in Summer, with a typical bloom time of June to August.

Asclepias Tuberosa Butterfly Weed
A second year Butterfly Weed Plant.

Naturally found in prairies and grasslands, this flower is a very important plant for wildlife. Bees are the primary pollinators, but is also is a host for several butterflies. This member of the Asclepias genus (milkweed) is a larval host for Monarch Butterflies.

Butterfly Weed Lifespan

Butterfly Weed is a long-lived perennial that is known for thriving in poor soils. In fertile soil, I’ve gotten Butterfly Milkweed to bloom it’s first year. But this is not typical.

You can expect Butterfly Weed to bloom it’s second year after growing from seed. And by the 3rd or 4th year, Butterfly Weed should grow to it’s full size.

Butterfly Weed Growth Cycle

The Lifecycle of Butterfly Weed is a perennial. It will emerge in late Spring, later than most other plants. Rapidly it will grow to a height of 1-2′ and bloom by early Summer for about one month. By late Summer to early Fall, seed pods will form. The pods will ripen, open, disperse their seed and die back to ground.

The hardiness zone for Butterfly Weed is USDA zones 3-9.

Butterfly Weed Stalk

Stalks will reach heights of 12″-30″, branching in the upper portion where flowering occurs. Multiple stems will shoot up from a central root crown when mature. The stalk is kind of a dark-purple color, and covered with fine hairs.

Butterfly Weed Leaf Identification

The Butterfly Weed leaves are alternate on the stalk and for size are about 3″ long by 1/2″ wide with smooth margins. Leaves generally are veined, with a central vein being the most prominent. You may notice your Butterfly Weed leaves curling upward lengthwise – this is normal.

Leaves of Butterfly Weed are beautiful by themselves. They are a dark green in the center, and somewhat yellow on the margins. The upper surface generally has a shiny or waxy texture, and is often hairless.

The underside of the leaves is a lighter shade of green, which makes for a really cool color transition.

Butterfly Weed leaves turning yellow

While the leaves are normally dark green on top, and light green underneath. Often the margins will have a yellow hue to them. I’ve found this to be completely normal. As the season goes on, Butterfly Weed leaves (especially lower leaves) tend to turn yellow.

butterfly weed leaves yellow in fall
This picture was of some of my plants in early September 2019. I consider the yellowing shown here normal coloration for butterfly weed leaves later in the season.

If you notice the entire leaf turning yellow before Autumn, it could mean several things. A nutrient deficiency, or too much water. Or, many native plants have lower leaves turn yellow and fall off as they no longer receive sunlight.

If you are concerned, the safest solution is to top-dress the plant with compost. Applying a 1-2″ thick ring of compost around the plant will take care of any nutrient deficiencies the plant may be experiencing. If that fails to address the yellow leaves, consider

Butterfly Weed Flower

The blooms of Butterfly Weed consist of clusters (umbels) of 10-30 individual orange flowers, with the overall cluster size being 1-3″ diameter. They are milkweed-style flowers, having 5 petals, sepals, and hoods w/ horns.

Asclepias Tuberosa Butterfly Weed
I truly believe that the flower style of Butterfly Weed is one of the most intricate and ornate that exist in the plant kingdom.

Butterfly Weed Blooming Season

Blooms of Butterfly Weed last up to 8 weeks, generally starting sometime in June and ending in August. Although, occasionally you are treated to additional blooming in late August / September.

Butterfly Weed seed pods

In early Autumn, pods will open with Butterfly Weed going to seed. After blooms have faded pods 2-4″ long by 1/2″ wide will form on Butterfly Weed. These pods contain the seeds and will start maturing in late Summer to early Fall.

When mature, these pods will open up and distribute seeds carried by a feather with the wind. Seeds can travel fare and wide and colonize disturbed, bare ground.

Butterfly Weed going to seed, with pods starting to open in September 2020, Pennsylvania

RELATED ==> Learn how to save Butterfly Seeds cleanly here. No mess!

Roots of Butterfly Weed

Butterfly Weed has a thick, woody taproot. Taproots of mature plants can be several feet (1 m) deep.

Butterfly Weed Benefits

1 – Bees and Butterflies love it!

Bees have been dying off for years [2]. One thing you can do to help them out is to plant bee-friendly plants. And it has been documented that Bumblebees and other bee species love this flower.

Asclepias Tuberosa Butterfly Weed
Bumble bee feeding on Butterfly Milkweed, Asclepias tuberosa

Butterfly Weed attracts truly a wide variety of pollinators making it so important ecologically. If you want to bring beautiful beneficial insects to your garden, planting Butterfly Weed is one the best native plants you can grow!

2 – Butterfly Weed and Monarch Butterfly

Can you spot the Monarch Caterpillar too?

Butterfly Weed is a host plant for the Monarch Butterfly. That means that migrating Monarch Butterflies will lay eggs on Butterfly Weed plants.

The Monarch Butterfly population has declined by 84% between 1996-2015 [4]. Much of this decline has been due to habitat loss. One of the best ways to help the Monarch Butterfly recover is to plant host plants, which include Butterfly Weed!

I’ve noticed that Butterfly Weed is one of the most reliable plants to attracting Monarchs to lay their eggs. I’ve had dozens of Monarch caterpillars on my plants just about every year I’ve grown Butterfly Weed.

Monarch caterpillar on Asclepias Tuberosa Butterfly Weed
A happy, well fed Monarch Caterpillar on Butterfly Weed

3 – Butterfly Weed is a Native Plant

One of the biggest benefits to growing native plants is that they require little to no care once established. As they have been around for centuries, they generally can thrive without any supplemental fertilizer or special needs. Just plant them in conditions that they prefer, and watch them grow!

Additionally native Plants have evolved to be disease resistant. They have built up natural defenses to common pests and diseases that non-native plants just don’t have. This means less care and fewer problems.

4 – A gorgeous plant from Spring until Frost

asclepias tuberosa seed pods autumn
Butterfly Weed leaves turning yellow in Autumn.

The almost two-toned leaves of Butterfly Weed make it interesting to look at in the Spring.

The gorgeous orange flowers make it beautiful for up to two months in the Summer.

And finally the erect seed pods make for a unique display until Autumn!

5 – Easy to grow and Tough

Butterfly Weed is easy to grow and establish in full sun and well drained soil. It may take a year to get fully established, but after that is will look great for decades.

Additionally Butterfly Weed is easy to grow from seed. So, by collecting a single pod in the fall you can literally germinate hundreds of plants if you want to!

6 – Butterfly Weed is Drought Tolerant

The long taproot of Butterfly Weed means that it will rarely need watering. You can plant this in the sunniest, driest spot in your yard and it will thrive!

How to Grow and Care for Butterfly Weed

Growing Butterfly Weed from Seed

Butterfly Weed is easy to grow from seed whether direct sowing in the Fall, Winter-Sowing, or starting in pots after a cold stratification period.

Butterfly Weed Cold Stratification

Like many native perennials, Butterfly Weed will have a better germination rate if they are cold stratified. This is where you ‘trick’ the seed into thinking it went through a winter. It is easiest to cold stratify Butterfly Weed seeds using a moist paper towel and zip-lock bag in the refrigerator.

asclepias tuberosa seed
Butterfly Milkweed Seed

Direct Sowing Butterfly Weed Seed

Butterfly Weed is easy to grow from seed. You can direct sow the seed on disturbed soil in the Fall. Just gently sprinkle and then walk on the seed. Then you just need to wait until Spring!

Starting Butterfly Weed Seed in Pots

To grow Butterfly Weed seed in pots, you need to do the following steps:

1 – Cold Stratify or Winter Sow seeds. Cold treatment will improve the germination rate substantially.

2 – Fill pots with a general potting soil that is moist, but not soggy.

3 – Plant Butterfly Weed seeds just under the soil, barely covered. Or just press them into it and cover with a light dusting.

4 – Place pots in a location that receives morning sun and afternoon shade.

5 – Keep the soil moist. Water only in the morning (if possible).

6 – Germination should occur within 21 days, once temperatures are above 70F

asclepias tuberosa seedling
Asclepias Tuberosa shortly after germination

I’ve written a detailed step by step guide to germinating any kind of Milkweed seed here if you would like more details. The process is generally the same for all Asclepias species.

Also, germinating Butterfly Weed Seed is covered in a video we made profiling Butterfly Weed. Have a look!

Purchase Seed

We have ordered a variety of native flower seeds from Everwilde Farms, which you can order right from Amazon through our link on our RECOMMENDED PRODUCTS PAGE. (We may earn a small commission when you purchase through our links, at no cost to you. This helps support our website.)

RELATED ==> Learn how to save Butterfly Seeds cleanly here

Butterfly Weed can bloom the first year from seed

I’ve successfully germinated Butterfly Weed seed in May, and had it bloom by August in it’s first growing season. I did this at my in-laws garden, who have extremely fertile soil. I was able to do this by transplanting it as soon as it had two sets of ‘true’ leaves, and protecting the seedlings from rabbits with Liquid Fence.

Transplanting Butterfly Weed into the Garden

Choose a location or flower bed that receives at least 4 hours of direct sun. But the more sun it receives, the better.

Butterfly Weed needs to have well-drained soil. Make sure the soil is well drained.

RELATED =>> Learn how to test if you have well drained soil here

Dig a hole that is twice as wide and deep as your pot.

Butterfly Weed Seedlings

Plant your seedling. Amend soil with a handful of compost if desired.

RELATED =>>Learn to make your own compost here.

Butterfly Weed Care

If you plant Butterfly Weed in it’s natural preferred growing conditions, it will not require supplemental care. It does not require fertilizing, as it grows wonderfully in poor soils.

Butterfly Weed Light Requirements

The sunlight requirements for Butterfly Weed are Full Sun or Partial Sun. Full sun is considered at least six hours per day of direct sunlight. While partial sun is 4-6 hours per day of direct sunlight.

However, Butterfly Weed prefers full sun. The more sun it receives, the larger it will grow. And the more blooms and vigor it will have.

Soil

Butterfly Weed prefers rocky or sandy soil that drains well. It can grow in compacted soil and even clay, but will grow more slowly.

Related – Learn to determine your exact soil type with our MASON JAR TEST Here

The more compacted the soil, the slower it will grow. But I’ve been growing it in over-compacted sandy loam for years with no issue.

The Butterfly Weed shown here is 3 years old.

Butterfly Weed Water Requirements

Butterfly Weed likes dry to medium moisture. It is very drought tolerant and can thrive in the hottest, driest area of your garden.

Special Care for Butterfly Weed

Butterfly Weed should not require any special care if you plant it in full sun and well-drained soil. No fertilizer or special soil amendments should be necessary.

When does Butterfly Weed emerge

Butterfly Weed emerges very late in Spring. Of all the different native plants I grow, Butterfly Weed is one of the last to emerge in Spring.

butterfly weed emerging from dormancy asclepias tuberosa
Photo is of Butterfly Weed Emerging. One of the latest plants to emerge in Spring (break dormancy) is butterfly weed, Asclepias tuberosa

So be patient! Your Butterfly Weed plants just like to take a slightly longer winters nap than other plants!

Butterfly Weed Fall and Winter Care

In Fall and Winter, Butterfly Weed can be cut back to the ground. Once the leaves and stalk appear dead or dry, simple take pruning shears and cut the plant to ground. It will reemerge in Spring.

After the flowers have faded seed pods will begin to develop in late Summer and into Autumn. Eventually the pods will turn brown and open up, releasing Butterfly Weed seeds into the wind.

Not long after this occurs, the leaves will turn yellow, eventually turning completely brown. The plant is now entering dormancy.

Once the foliage is completely brown, the plant can be cut back to ground level. It will reemerge in the Spring.

Why does my Butterfly Weed keep dying?

Butterfly Weed will die if it is not planted in the correct growing conditions that it can tolerate. So, if you have repeatedly planted Butterfly Weed in the same spot, only to have it die multiple times, there are a few things to check:

  • Make Butterfly Weed is receiving at least 4 hours direct sun per day
  • Make sure Butterfly Weed is planted in well-drained soil
  • If you have enough sun and soil drainage, then test the pH level of your soil. Butterfly Weed prefers 6-7.5 pH level.

Is Butterfly Weed Invasive?

Butterfly Weed is not invasive. Unlike common milkweed, Butterfly Weed does not spread via later or horizontal roots known as rhizomes. Butterfly Weed can only spread by seed. Due to the nature of seed dispersal (floating away on the wind), Butterfly Weed does not self-seed locally very much if at all.

Deadhead Butterfly Weed

You can deadhead Butterfly Weed to increase the summer blooming season. However, the amount of blooms you will get will be less than the initial blooms.

To deadhead Butterfly Weed, wait until the flower petals begin falling off a bloom. Then, remove the stalk at the first junction of leaves below the bloom.

Personally, I do not deadhead my Butterfly Weed, as I like to maximize seed production. Deadheading Butterfly Milkweed will reduce the number of seeds produced.

Pruning Butterfly Weed

If you are trying to keep plants extra short, Butterfly Weed can be pruned. In early Summer by trimming or cutting back a stalk 1/3 of the height. This will encourage the plant to start branching, keeping the overall height smaller.

Wildlife, Pests, and Diseases

Butterfly Weed attracts wildlife

My Butterfly Weed brings in lots of pollinators. Bees are the primary pollinators for Butterfly Weed [2]. But, the nectar in the flowers will also attract butterflies and occasional hummingbird [5].

Butterfly Weed is a larval host for butterflies

Monarch Butterflies will lay their eggs on Butterfly Weed [6]. But additional species such as the Gray Hairstreak and Queen Butterfly [7], [8].

Butterfly Weed Pests

Even though Native Plants are tough and disease/pest resistant, they are part of the ecosystem. Certain insects that will feed on Butterfly Weed are not attractive, and although native are not desirable. These include the Tussock Moth and Milkweed Beetle.

Butterfly Weed and Tussock Moth

Tussock Moths can completely defoliate any Milkweed plant. It has happened to me on my Swamp Milkweeds. However, the plants will generally recover.

A Tussock Moth feeding on Butterfly Weed

If you are trying to save seeds from your plants, you may wish to don a pair of leather gloves and pick off the Tussock Moths.

Milkweed Beetle

The Milkweed Beetle is a common occurring insect that will feed on the seeds as they are forming. Should you wish to save seed your Butterfly Weed seed, you should remove any stalk with Milkweed Beetles and toss them in the trash.

A milkweed beetle feeding frenzy

Orange Bugs or Yellow Bugs on Butterfly Weed

The primary non-native pest for Butterfly Weed is the dreaded Oleander Aphid. These aphids are thought to have come from the Mediterranean, where the Oleander plant grows wild [9].

Butterfly Weed aphids will generally be clustered on the stalk in dense groupings. These small yellow bugs or orange bugs will look like tiny bumps.

Milkweed aphids

These small orange aphids (also known as Milkweed aphids) will suck sap and nutrients from the stalks. These orange or yellow bugs on your Butterfly Weed will not harm the plant. They are just very ugly.

Oleander Aphid Control on Milkweed

If you wish to control Oleander Aphids, you have 3 options:

1 – Spray them off with a soapy water mix

2 – Spray them off with the hose

3 – Squish them.

Squishing Oleander Aphids is the most effective in my experience. It’s gross, but they are never coming back!

Butterfly Weed and Deer / Rabbits

Ok – so I must give you my personal experience with Butterfly Weed, which is extensive. But in 8 years of growing Butterfly Weed, I have found that Butterfly Weed is deer resistant. In fact I’ve never seen damage from deer.

But, I have had rabbits eat young or tender foliage of Butterfly Weed. They mainly seem to be at risk at the seedling stage, or when first emerging in Spring. But rabbits will eat Butterfly Weed.

To avoid deer and rabbit damage for any flower, my recommendation is to use Liquid fence. Liquid Fence is the only product that reliably protects from deer and rabbits, in my experience.

Butterfly Weed Diseases

The primary disease that can kill Butterfly Weed is Chlorosis, or Root Rot [10].

This disease will effect Butterfly Weed when the roots are too wet. This is most often caused by poor draining soil.

Where to Buy Butterfly Weed

Butterfly Weed plants can be purchased from specialty nurseries that focus on native plants, and online.

Seeds are readily available though, and by far the most economical way to obtain plants. We’ve had great luck with certain companies that we link to on our recommended products page.

Butterfly Weed Uses

Garden Uses for Butterfly Weed

Butterfly Weed can be used in the garden a number of ways. From being single ornamental specimen to mass plantings, it is quite versatile. Butterfly Weed garden design should have the plant in the front, and south facing. This way the plant will not be shaded out by other flowers.

It is an excellent flower to put in a micro-prairie or wildflower meadow. It works well in well-manicured flower beds. Around a mailbox, just about anywhere.

Butterfly Weed Companion Plants

Butterfly Weed grows well with other drought tolerant plants that bloom at the same time. Or, choose other nearby companion plants to keep constant blooms all summer.

Some companion plants for Butterfly Weed include the following:

Butterfly Weed Toxicity

Butterfly Weed is toxic to most humans in large doses. The sap and roots are the primary toxic compounds.

I have never found a fatal poisoning, but there have been documented corneal poisonings (blindness) over time [11]. So, the sap of all Milkweeds can cause blurred vision or blindness. Keep this in mind when handling the plant, or cutting them down in the Fall.

If you get the white sap on your skin, wash it off and rinse thoroughly. And do not rub your eyes.

Butterfly Weed and dogs

For pet owners, you should know that Butterfly Weed is poisonous and toxic to dogs and all mammals if ingested in large quantities. [13] It appears that livestock are more likely to ingest Butterfly Weed.

Native American Uses

Native American Tribes used Butterfly Weed Medicinally for centuries. There are over 31 documented uses for Butterfly Weed medicinally and other ways with several different Tribes [12].

Uses by the Cherokee, Delaware, Menominee, Mohegan, and Navajo include

  • Seeds –
    • Antidiarrheal
    • laxative
  • Root
    • was used for heart trouble
    • a drink for women after childbirth
    • Used for pleurisy
    • Crushed roots rubbed on muscles for strength
    • Poultice of root used to relieve bruises/swelling
    • Tonic
    • Used to heal wounds
    • Eaten for bronchial or pulmonary problems
  • Leaves
    • Used to treat snake bites
  • Stems
    • Used to make belts
  • Used ceremonially

PIN IT FOR LATER:

References:

[1] – Fishbein, M. and Venable, D.L. (1996), Diversity and Temporal Change in the Effective Pollinators of Asclepias Tuberosa. Ecology, 77: 1061-1073. https://doi.org/10.2307/2265576

[2] – Rutgers University. Decline of bees, other pollinators threatens US crop yields. Phys.org – published 28JUL2020. https://phys.org/news/2020-07-decline-bees-pollinators-threatens-crop.html Retrieved 15JAN2021.

[3] – Haddad, N.M. and Tewksbury, J.J. (2005), LOW‐QUALITY HABITAT CORRIDORS AS MOVEMENT CONDUITS FOR TWO BUTTERFLY SPECIES. Ecological Applications, 15: 250-257. https://doi.org/10.1890/03-5327

[4] – Thogmartin Wayne E., Wiederholt Ruscena, Oberhauser Karen, Drum Ryan G., Diffendorfer Jay E., Altizer Sonia, Taylor Orley R., Pleasants John, Semmens Darius, Semmens Brice, Erickson Richard, Libby Kaitlin and Lopez-Hoffman Laura. 2017. Monarch butterfly population decline in North America: identifying the threatening processesR. Royal Society Open ScienceVolume 4, Issue 9. 2017. https://doi.org/10.1098/rsos.170760. Retrieved 15JAN2021.

[5] – Fishbein, M. and Venable, D.L. (1996), Diversity and Temporal Change in the Effective Pollinators of Asclepias Tuberosa. Ecology, 77: 1061-1073. https://doi.org/10.2307/2265576. Retrieved January 2021

[6] – Lemoine NP (2015) Climate Change May Alter Breeding Ground Distributions of Eastern Migratory Monarchs (Danaus plexippus) via Range Expansion of Asclepias Host Plants. PLoS ONE 10(2): e0118614. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0118614

[7] – Wendy Potter-Springer. Grow a Butterfly Garden: Storey Country Wisdom Bulletin A-114. P7.

[8] – Paola A. Barriga, Eleanore D. Sternberg, Thierry Lefèvre, Jacobus C. de Roode, Sonia Altizer, Occurrence and host specificity of a neogregarine protozoan in four milkweed butterfly hosts (Danaus spp.),Journal of Invertebrate Pathology, Volume 140, 2016,Pages 75-82, ISSN 0022-2011, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jip.2016.09.003.

[9] – Heather J. McAuslane, University of Florida. Photographs: J. Castner, L. Buss and H. J. McAuslane, University of Florida. Publication Number: EENY-247. Publication Date: November 2001. Reviewed: April 2014. Latest revision: May 2017. Retrieved 15JAN2021. http://entnemdept.ufl.edu/creatures/orn/shrubs/oleander_aphid.htm

[10] – root rot Wilt and Root Diseases of Asclepias tuberosa L. Tsror (Lahkim), M. Hazanovski, O. Erlich, and N. Dagityar. Plant Disease 1997 81:10, 1203-1205 https://apsjournals.apsnet.org/doi/abs/10.1094/PDIS.1997.81.10.1203

[11] – Mikkelsen LH, Hamoudi H, Gül CA, Heegaard S. Corneal Toxicity Following Exposure to Asclepias Tuberosa. Open Ophthalmol J. 2017;11:1-4. Published 2017 Jan 31. doi:10.2174/1874364101711010001. Retrieved 15JAN2021.

[12] – Native American Ethnobotany. A Database of Foods, Drugs, Dyes and Fibers of Native American Peoples, Derived from Plants. http://naeb.brit.org/uses/search/?string=asclepias+tuberosa Retrieved January 15, 2021.

[13] – Toxic and Non-Toxic plants to Dogs, ASPCA, https://www.aspca.org/pet-care/animal-poison-control/toxic-and-non-toxic-plants/milkweed Retrieved 15FEB2021.

Joe Foster

Hi - I grew up outdoors in nature - hiking, fishing, hunting. In high school I got my first job at a garden center where I learned to garden and landscape. I've been growing plants from seed and designing native plant gardens for over six years. I hope to share some of my knowledge with you! Additionally I am a wood worker / DIY enthusiast. I enjoy designing/building projects (with hand tools when I can!). I hope to give you some tips and useful information!

Recent Posts