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, orange milkweed, pleurisy root, and yellow milkweed, the plant can grow to be anywhere from one to two feet tall and is characterized by glossy green leaves and clusters of bright orange-to-yellow blooms that are rich with nectar and pollen, which in turn attracts butterflies, along with bees, insects, and hummingbirds, all summer long. 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 they can also be brewed into a tea that can then 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.

Botanical name Asclepias tuberosa
Common name Butterfly weed, Orange milkweed, Pleurisy root,
Yellow milkweed, Chigger weed
Plant type Perennial
Mature size 12 ft. tall, 11.5 ft. wide
Sun exposure Full
Soil type Dry, well-drained
Soil pH Neutral
Bloom time Summer
Flower color  Orange, yellow
Hardiness zones 3 to 9 (USDA)
Native area North America
Toxicity Non-toxic
butterfly weed
The Spruce / Adrienne Legault
butterfly weed
The Spruce / Adrienne Legault
butterfly on butterfly weed
Danita Delimont / Getty Images 

Butterfly Weed Care

Beloved for its ability to attract a variety of helpful (and beautiful) insects to the garden, Butterly 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, the butterfly plant 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.

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 the 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 the Butterfly Weed is adaptable to zones three through nine, 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

The 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.

Is Butterfly Weed Toxic?

Though considered non-toxic, the roots and sap from Butterfly Weed can cause vomiting, weakness, and spasms in both animals and humans if consumed in very large quantities.

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 form. 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.

Fun Fact

Butterfly weed is a host plant for the monarch, queens, and gray hairstreak butterflies.