Butterfly weed, a North American prairie plant, was named Perennial Plant of the Year for 2017 by the Perennial Plant Association. Great news for pollinators!
Butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa) is a veritable nectar bar for many different kinds of bees, beneficial wasps, butterflies, and even hummingbirds. And if you want to help monarch butterflies, this plant is tops because it’s a favorite food source for their caterpillars.
The overall habit is upright, with lance-like leaves spiraling up the stem. It tops out at 2-3 feet, and is crowned with orange flower umbels from early summer to mid-fall. The flowers are pretty cool if you look at them closely. After flowering, long skinny seedpods form—a dead giveaway that butterfly weed is in the milkweed family. As fall progresses, the pods dry out, split open, and release seeds that have silky hairs to help them float on the wind.
Butterfly weed grows best in full sun and average, well-draining soil. It can handle brutal summer heat and winters as low as -25 degrees F (USDA Zones 4-9). True to its prairie origins, butterfly weed is pretty drought tolerant once established in the garden. It seeds around a little in my garden, but I welcome it wherever it pops up. It’s never invasive and is such a great wildlife plant. As an added bonus, deer don’t seem to like it.
If you love hot colors, butterfly weed’s blazing orange flowers will be just your thing. Grow it with other eye-popping perennials like daylilies and red bee balm (Monarda) for a fiesta of color. If orange flowers scare you, tone down butterfly weed’s volume with blue, purple, or white companion flowers for a softer look.
You can grow butterfly weed from seed fairly easily. Plants aren’t often available in garden centers, but hopefully that will change now that it has some street cred. Patronize your local garden center and ask for it if they don’t offer it. Plant some and you’ll be doing something great for pollinators and hummingbirds.