How to Grow Butterfly Weed

Butterfly weed

The Spruce / Adrienne Legault 

In This Article

Butterfly weed is a must-have plant for green thumbs looking to coax its namesake beautiful winged insects into their garden. Also known as Asclepias tuberosa, butterfly weed can grow to be anywhere from 1 to 2 feet tall and is characterized by glossy green leaves and clusters of bright orange-to-yellow blooms that are rich with nectar and pollen.

First grown in the prairies of the Midwestern United States, butterfly weed boasts a long medicinal history as well. Native Americans used to chew the roots as a remedy for pleurisy and other pulmonary issues, and it can also be brewed into a tea that can be used to treat diarrhea and other stomach ailments. Butterfly weed should be planted in the early spring (after the final frost)—it will be slow to emerge, but will grow quickly once it does, hitting peak height and bloom in mid-to-late summer.

Common Name Butterfly weed, Orange milkweed, Pleurisy root, Yellow milkweed, Chigger weed
Botanical Name Asclepias tuberosa
Family Asclepiadaceae
Plant type Perennial
Mature size 1–2 ft. tall, 1–1.5 ft. wide
Sun exposure Full sun
Soil type Dry, well-drained
Soil pH Neutral
Bloom time Summer
Flower color  Orange, yellow
Hardiness zones 3–9, USA
Native area North America

Butterfly Weed Care

Beloved for its ability to attract a variety of helpful (and beautiful) insects to the garden, butterfly weed is an easy-to-nurture varietal that can also be found growing as a native wildflower in a slew of untamed environments, like meadows, prairies, and forests. Typically grown from seeds you sow directly in the garden in the fall, butterfly weed does not require much tending to in order to thrive, prospering well in everything from clay soil, to dry or rocky soil, and even throughout drought-like conditions.

Its seed pods will brown towards the end of its growing season (early autumn) and, if left on the plant, will burst and spread seeds throughout your garden to emerge as new growth the following spring. While the plant can take up to three years to fully mature and produce flowers, its blooms will gradually grow denser with each season that passes. Additionally, butterfly weed is not susceptible to any major pests or diseases.

butterfly on butterfly weed
Danita Delimont / Getty Images 
butterfly weed
The Spruce / Adrienne Legault

Light

Choose a spot in your garden to plant your butterfly weed that boasts hours of bright sunlight daily, as this plant loves to soak up the rays. Full sun is definitely your best bet, but the hardy plant can tolerate a few hours of shade too.

Soil

Chances are there are more finicky flowers in your garden than butterfly weed, so feel free to allow them to dictate the soil composition—when it comes to this plant, you don't have to stress. Butterfly weed can prosper in a variety of soil conditions and compositions, from clay to gravel, and generally prefers a neutral to slightly acidic pH.

Water

During its first year of life (or until new plants start showing mature growth), you should maintain a moist soil environment for the butterfly weed. Once the plant appears to be well-established, you can cut back to watering it only occasionally, as it now prefers dry soil.

Temperature and Humidity

Because butterfly weed is adaptable to zones 3 through 9, it can thrive in a variety of different temperature and humidity settings. Generally, the plant emerges in late spring, hitting its peak bloom during the warmer summer months and drying on the stem throughout the autumn and winter. It also tolerates heat and drought well.

Fertilizer

Low-maintenance butterfly weed does not require any additional fertilization—in fact, doing so can harm the plant, so it's best to just let it do its thing.

Pruning Butterfly Weed

Though butterfly weed does not need much pruning throughout the year, it can be cut back to the ground ahead of the winter season. In late autumn, you'll notice the leaves on the butterfly weed are beginning to yellow and the stems are drying out and turning brown. This is a sign that the plant is entering dormancy for the season—at this point, you can take a clean set of pruning shears and cut the plant to the grown, where it will stay until it reemerges in spring.

How to Grow Butterfly Weed From Seed

Typically, the easiest and most successful way to add butterfly weed to your garden is to grow it from seed. Plant fresh seeds in fall for growth the following spring, or allow any established butterfly weeds already in your garden to do the work for you. Beginning in late summer or early fall, the plants should start to develop seed pods in place of their blooms. If left on the stem, the pods will eventually burst and the seeds inside will be blown throughout your garden, allowing them to establish themselves in the soil in time for the following year. If you'd rather have more control over the eventual location of any new butterfly weed plants, you can remove the seed pods from the plant before they burst open and simply plant new seeds by hand instead.

How to Get Butterfly Weed to Bloom

In general, butterfly weed is not a difficult plant to cultivate and should bloom freely on its own once it has reached maturity (which can take up to three years). That being said, if you're struggling to get your butterfly weed to bloom, there could be a few factors at play.

It's important to get your watering cadence right for the plant. It should be watered regularly until new growth starts to appear (this includes leaves and stems, not just blooms), at which point you can decrease the frequency with which you water. Additionally, butterfly weed plants should not be fertilized. While fertilizer may work to make other plants bloom, it can actually harm butterfly weed and discourage blooming.

FAQ
  • Is butterfly weed easy to grow?

    Yes. Butterfly weed is a very adaptable plant suited to a variety of soil and environmental conditions, making it easy to grow successfully.

  • How fast does butterfly weed grow?

    Butterfly weed grows quickly once established, but will not set blooms until it is about three years mature.

  • Can you grow butterfly weed indoors?

    You can start butterfly weed seeds indoors to get a head start on the season. However, because butterfly weed plants are primarily grown to attract pollinators, it's best if they are grown outdoors in the garden.