Gee, What Does Butterfly Weed Attract?

Looking for a drought-tolerant, showy perennial that’s also a butterfly magnet? Meet butterfly weed, a prairie native that provides garden color through much of the summer, even when conditions are hot and dry.

Butterfly weed emerges late in spring, sending up many upright stems sporting lance-shaped, deep green leaves. It blooms for many weeks during the summer, bearing large clusters of small, crown-shaped flowers in shades of orange.

In autumn, the slender brown seedpods split open to disperse small, flat seeds, each attached to a silky plume that helps waft seeds through the air. It’s not invasive, but if you don’t want the seeds just deadhead after bloom. Butterfly weed is a great choice for dry, sandy sites.

Common name: Butterfly weed

Botanical name: Asclepias tuberosa

Plant type: Herbaceous perennial

Zones: 3 to 9

Height: 15 to 30 inches

Family: Apocynaceae


Growing conditions

  • Sun: Full sun
  • Soil: Sandy or gravelly; well-drained
  • Moisture: Average to dry; drought-tolerant once established

Care

  • Mulch: None
  • Pruning: None
  • Fertilizer: Topdress with a ½-inch layer of compost in spring

Propagation

  • Seeds

Pests and diseases

  • May develop root rot in poorly drained soils


Cultivars

  • ‘Hello Yellow’ has sunny yellow flowers.
  • ‘Gay Butterflies’ is a seed strain that produces blooms in a range of colors from yellow to orange and scarlet.

Garden notes

  • As its name implies, butterfly weed is attractive to butterflies. Many species will visit the flowers, and the foliage is a food source for monarch caterpillars.
  • Butterfly weed mingles beautifully with other prairie flowers including purple coneflower, false indigo and penstemon.
  • Established plants are difficult to transplant because of their long taproots. If you must move a butterfly weed, dig down as far as possible to keep more of the root.

All in the family

  • Butterfly weed is a member of the dogbane family (Apocynaceae), which contains about a thousand species of woody and herbaceous plants that grow primarily in tropical and subtropical regions.
  • Other familiar garden and house plants in the dogbane family include Vinca, Madagascar periwinkle (Catharanthus roseus), wax flower (Hoya), frangipani (Plumeria) and oleander (Nerium oleander).
  • Milkweeds (Asclepias spp.) are the only plants that monarch butterflies use as a host plant.

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