Butterfly Milkweed

Lynda Ellis, Anoka County Extension Master Gardener

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Most people like pollinators such as butterflies and bees, and many also want to support monarch butterflies. Most people also like pretty flowers and many prefer them on native plants. Here is one way to combine all these attributes in one plant.

Butterfly milkweed, scientific name Asclepias tuberosa, is also known as butterfly weed. It produces copious nectar. It is a perennial pollinator plant, attracts hummingbirds and is a host plant for monarch butterfly caterpillars. It is a native Minnesota plant.

Native Americans used fibers from the dried stems to make ropes and weave into cloth. Many tribes used parts of it as food. In colonial America, dried leaves of butterfly milkweed and skunk cabbage were made into a tea to treat chest complaints; this gave butterfly milkweed the alternate name “pleurisy root.”

Butterfly milkweed does not transplant well because it has a deep woody taproot. It can be divided by using a sharp knife to slice down the length of the taproot. Every piece that has at least one eye, some of the taproot and a few side roots is a viable division. This long taproot means that it is tolerant of dry conditions. But it also can handle moisture; I have it on the high sides of my rain garden.

It has the usual milkweed pods and it is easily propagated from the seeds in these pods. Collect them as the pods just begin to open. It is best to plant the seeds in autumn, to germinate the following spring. They will flower in year three. Note that mature plants may freely self-seed in the landscape if seed pods are not removed prior to them opening. These pods could be given to friends who want them.

It is an essential garden plant because of its large, flat-topped clusters of bright orange flowers at the top of flowering stems. Though it is a milkweed, it has a watery, not milky sap. This means it can be used for cut flowers. Its leaves are green and form a nice backdrop for the bright flowers.

The mature plant is 1-2 feet high. It handles sun or part shade and blooms from June to Sept. It is hardy in zones 3-9. I wish you the best with all of your growing efforts.