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Asclepias Tuberosa, How to Grow Butterfly Weed

Asclepias Tuberosa Butterfly WeedHow to Grow Butterfly Milkweed, Asclepias Tuberosa – the short version.

For the short and sweet summary of this article, all you need to provide for Butterfly Milkweed to thrive is the folloiwng;

  • Full sun, (direct, 6 hr /day minimum).  But the more sun the better.
  • Well drained soil.  I’ve grown it in nice loamy soil, and clay.  Although it grows slowly in clay.
  • Hardy in USDA Zones 3-9.  Find your USDA Zone Here
  • Since it is native, there won’t be much in the way of pests/threats/disease.  It is very hardy.

Don’t forget to check out the reference table at the end of this article.  It can make a nice checklist for where you decide to plant some in your garden.

Asclepias Tuberosa / Buttefly Weed Facts and General DescriptionAsclepias Tuberosa Butterfly Weed

Asclepias Tuberosa is an important native plant for the survival of the Monarch Butterfly, and provides you with lovely orange blooms at the same time.  This is the orange milkweed you can sometimes find along roadsides and forest clearings.  This is a well behaved perennial flower with a unique flower structure that is interesting to examine up close. It is very tolerant of drought, as it has a very deep tap-root that extends several feet below ground making it very drought tolerant.  This plant is also famous for in general being very hardy. 

Growing to a height of about 2′ with equal spread, this plant isn’t too pushy.  It can spread via rhizomes, but overall it is easy to contain.  There are varieties available that are specific to clay, although I’ve never had issue growing them in poor clay soil myself.  I’ve just found that they are slower to grow in clay soil.  In fact most of the pictures you see on this page are from plants I have grown in poor, clay soil.  The picture to the right is a second year plant in horrible clay, rocky soil.

The bright orange blooms are long lasting, usually for a month or more, will give way to upright milkweed pods that are attractive in and of themselves!  Pollinators of all kinds love this flower!  From hummingbirds, to bees, to our beloved butterflies – they all love to pay Asclepias Tuberosa a visit!

Is Butterfly Milkweed edible?

First, let me say that all types of milkweed are toxic if ingested in large quantities.  So, I don’t condone or suggest you eat it.  In fact, don’t ever eat it.  But, per USDA [1] there has been a long history of Native Americans using roots and leaves for a large variety of ailments.  But from what I have read, there is much preparation needed to make ingestion safe to eat.  However, many tribes did consume it regularly as a food staple during the winter, particularly the roots and pods.  Again, I suggest you don’t eat it.  If milkweed tasted that good, some company would prepare and sell it in stores by now.

In addition to using it as medicine, rope and cordage could be produced form the plant fibers.  The fibers were also woven into textiles to wear as clothes, etc.  You could harvest these fibers in late fall or winter from the stems.

Butterfly Milkweed is critical Monarch Butterfly

The Monarch Butterfly has formed a critical relationship with all milkweed plants.  They will only lay their eggs on milkweed, and no other plant.  Remember just above where I said this plant was toxic?  Well Monarch Caterpillars will eat the leaves after hatching from their eggs.  It is speculated that the toxins, or compounds within the plant either make the caterpillar taste very bad to predators, or even make the young caterpillars toxic.  That in turn allows the caterpillar to feed with less probability of being eaten by predators, and eventually to safely form their chrysalis/cocoon where they will turn into the butterfly.

By growing this plant you can help save the Monarch Butterfly, as there are fewer and fewer milkweed plants available on their long journey from Mexico to Canada and back.  Much of the natural habitat for milkweed has been taken over by single-crop farmland.  Also, farmers typically don’t want cattle/sheep grazing on milkweed, as it might be toxic to these types of livestock.


Best Conditions for Growing Butterfly Weed and Maintenance

Asclepias Tuberosa will grow to around 2’ (60 cm) with an equal spread in ideal conditions, full sun and not too wet.  The more sun you can give this plant, the happier it will be and the larger it will become.  It is generally long lived but might take a few years to reach full height/spread depending on the soil/conditions, growing slower within clay soil.  Overall Asclepias Tuberosa will not require much maintenance, is very tough, and should give you nice color for years.

butterfly weed emerging from dormancy asclepias tuberosa
One of the latest plants to emerge in Spring (break dormancy) is butterfly weed, asclepias tuberosa

This plant has a long tap-root, so it will be very drought tolerant.  I can’t recall ever really needing to water these specifically during droughts.  Although they probably still benefited from my watering of other plants at this time.  But the point is, they are drought tolerant.  Taproots are great at being able to pull up water from deep in the ground.  But, use your own eyes!  If you notice the ends and tips of leaves turning brown and crispy during extreme heat/drought, then giving it some water is probably a good idea.

Do I need to deadhead or prune Butterfly Milkweed?

Basically, no you don’t.  It isn’t necessary for the plants survival or health.  I have never touched this plant after emergence from winter dormancy.  Deadheading the spent blooms may encourage a second round of blooming, but it also might interfere with seed production.  So, if you aren’t interested in saving the seeds at all, or allowing the plant to disperse its seeds naturally, then deadheading it should be fine.

Fauna problems with Butterfly Milkweed

I’ve not seen any problems from disease on my plants, but I have seen plenty of aphids/milkweed bugs. If these plants are in a prominent place, you can spray them with soapy water or a hose to remove the insects.  Also, I have occasionally had rabbits nibble young plants, but once they reach a certain size this is usually not a problem.  So applying some liquid fence is probably a good idea, and certainly doesn’t hurt when transplanting out young seedlings.Bee Pollinating, Asclepias Tuberosa, Butterfly Weed

Growing Asclepias Tuberosa from seed

Germinating Asclepias Tuberosa from seed is very easy.  Many references state that you need to stratify the seed for 30 days, but I’ve never had trouble germinating them without stratification.  But, stratification wouldn’t hurt the seeds of Butterfly Weed at all, and might even increase the germination rate.

Asclepias Tuberosa Seedlings Butterfly Weed seedlings
Butterfly Weed Seedlings [Asclepias Tuberosa]
When I want to grow Butterfly Weed, I will direct sow these seeds in a pot and water / keep moist.  Then lightly cover the seed, and I generally use more than I need and just leave a few sitting on top of the soil.  I use extra seed because I don’t stratify or winter sow them.  Stratification of seed will increase the germination rate, and since I don’t bother stratifying Butterfly Weed seeds I just use extra.  And if you gather your own seed for this plant, you will have hundreds of seeds!  Overall, this is one of the easier plants to germinate.  I always start out planning to grow a 6-cell pack of Asclepias Tuberosa, and within a few weeks I will split it into 12-18 pots.  So, I’ve had great luck with germination on butterfly weed.

Saving seed from Butterfly Milkweed

butterfly milkweed seed podsHarvesting seed from butterfly milkweed is very easy, as long as you get to the pods in time.  All milkweed plants disperse their seed in the same manner.  At the ends of the stalk, where the blooms were, pods will develop.  Overtime, the seeds will grow/develop, with each seed having some chaff attached.  Once the pods have ripened, the pod will open up as it dries, and the seed will be released one seed at a time or a week or two.  The feathery chaff attached to the seed will allow the wind to carry it far away.  I found this a great and fascinating way in which the plant has evolved to propagate itself!

How to tell when the seed is ready for harvest

Several weeks after flowering when Autumn is approaching, the pods (and seeds inside) will begin to ripen, or dry out.  All you need to do is to check the pods periodically (before they open), and look at the seeds contained inside to determine if the seed has ripened, and the pods can be picked.  If you open a pod up, and the seed is white/green, then drop that pod to the ground and wait another week or two before checking again.  Then return, open a pod up, and if the seed is a dark brown, like in the picture above, then you can collect the pods. If you are able to do this before the pods open up and start dispersing the seed, then your job will be easy.

If you get the pods after the seeds are ripe, but before the feathers have dried, you can separate the seeds without having chaff blow around.  Take a pair of garden sheers, or scissors and snip off several pods.  Then, you can just open the pods up and rake the seed off with your fingers.  It is best to do this outside, as the fluffy, feathery chaff still probably blow around somewhat, and you don’t want to be chasing that stuff down in your house!

Late getting to the pods?  No matter, here is a clean way to separate the seed!

If you don’t make it to pods before they start opening up, I’ve found another method that works well for collecting the seed cleanly.  It involves holding the pods firmly at the base (where the seed is), and then using your other hand to peal the pod like a banana.  Then you just firmly pull the feathers out, while still holding the base.  Thus you separate the feathers from the seed, without making too much of a mess.

Then all you need to do is let the seed dry in a cool dry place for about a week before storing in a jar, or zip-lock bag.  I’ve germinated seed up to 2 years after collecting it.  However, it is best to plant it the following year, as then you can be sure that you should get a high germination rate with fresher seed.

Bring on the Monarch Butterflies!

One of the best benefits of growing butterfly weed is Monarch Butterflies!  I’ve had up to 15 caterpillars on a single plant!  And it is fun to watch them nibbling on the leaves.  

The more of these you grow, the more likely you are to have Monarch Butterflies lay eggs on the plant and give you caterpillars.  Since the spread is not too much, I say grow at least 4-5 in a small circle, or distribute them throughout a flower bed. More plants will look better than a single specimen, and you will increase the chances of Monarch Caterpillars.

Monarch caterpillars on Asclepias Tuberosa Butterfly Weed
FIVE Monarch Caterpillars in one picture on Butterfly Weed!

Asclepias Tuberosa, typical uses

Often I will see this as single specimens, or a few plants that are widely spaced apart in flower beds.  In the wild, I see butterfly weed dispersed throughout a meadow, or along a tree line.  This plant can do pretty well against competition, as it grows quickly after emergence from winter.  I always say, if you want to draw in Monarchs (who doesn’t?) then you should plant a large number of butterfly weed in your garden.  Either clustered together or dispersed throughout.  Asclepias Tuberosa can reliably fill in gaps in your flower bed, as it doesn’t get too tall or too wide.

So, in general this plant is extremely versatile in that it can be in isolated specimens throughout a flower bed, can make a nice border/accent, and works well just about anywhere where the soil is well drained.

Asclepias Tuberosa Butterfly Weed buds and bloom Asclepias Tuberosa Butterfly Weed Monarch on Asclepias Tuberosa Butterfly Weed Monarch caterpillar on Asclepias Tuberosa Butterfly Weed

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Asclepias Tuberosa Reference Information Table


Common Name Butterfly Weed
Scientific name Asclepias Tuberosa
USDA Zone 3-9
Bloom Time June-July (can have second bloom late August if lucky)
Bloom Duration 4-8 weeks
Color Orange
Bloom Size Clusters of small flowers, in 1-4” strips (25-100 mm)
Characteristics This is a milkweed plant, so a unique flower structure
Height 2’ (60 cm)
Spacing/Spread 1-2’ (30-60cm)
Light Requirements Full sun
Soil Types Anything well drained.  This does well in clay
Moisture Dry/Med
Maintenance None
Typical Use Wildflower garden, flower bed, meadow
Fauna Associations Humming birds, bees, butterflies
Larval Host Monarch Butterfly, Queen Butterfly
Sowing Depth Surface, or just under soil
Stratification Most references say 30 days, although I’ve never bothered.  So probably not required
Native Range Eastern USA, Canada


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[1] U.S. Department of Agriculture / Natural Resources Conservation Service. Butterfly Milkweed. By M. Kat Anderson and Michelle Stevens. Revised 31May2006.  USDA, NRCS, National Plant Data Center
How to grow Butterfly Weed
Butterfly Weed- Asclepias Tuberosa
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