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how to plant butterfly weed seeds

How to Grow Butterfly Weed

The Spruce / Adrienne Legault

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 1 – 2 ft. tall, 1 – 1.5 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 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.

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.

Butterfly Weed is low maintenance, colorful, and attracts butterflies and caterpillars all season long, making it the perfect choice for your garden.

How to Plant Butterfly Weed Seeds

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Sometimes called pleurisy root, butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa) is a perennial wildflower grown for its showy, reddish-orange flower clusters and textured, lanceolate leaves. A member of the milkweed family, it thrives throughout U.S. Department of Agriculture plant hardiness zones 3 to 9, where it is frequently added to butterfly gardens and native plant landscaping.

Butterfly weed and milkweed seed pods may be harvested and planted to support Monarch butterfly caterpillars. Butterfly weed grows well from seeds, which must be harvested in late summer and either sown immediately in the garden, or started in spring after a lengthy chilling process. The seeds are viable and will germinate with little care, although they must be planted at the appropriate depth to ensure successful sprouting.

Gather the butterfly weed seeds in late summer or autumn, once the pods dry to a light, rosy-beige color, but before they split open. Put on rubber gloves before handling the pods to protect your hands from the mildly toxic sap.

Before you begin to harvest the butterfly weed pods, sterilize your cutting tools. Dip the blades into a full-strength household cleanser, such as Lysol or Pine-Sol. Repeat between cuts to prevent the spread of diseases.

Snip off the pod using pruning shears. Slice lengthwise along the edge using a utility knife. Pry open the seed pods. Scoop out the seeds and fluffy matter inside and place it in a bucket.

Leave the bucket outdoors for two or three days to let the fluff blow away. Stir the seeds occasionally to loosen more fluff. Do not worry if some of the fluff remains, since it won’t inhibit the germination process.

Place the butterfly weed seeds in a plastic bag filled with 1 cup of moistened perlite. Store the bag inside the refrigerator for three months. Mist the perlite with water every few days to keep it from drying out completely.

Prepare peat or other biodegradable pots before removing the butterfly weed seeds from the refrigerator. Fill 3-inch starter pots with a mixture of half seed-starting compost and half coarse sand. Moisten the mix and press it firm.

Make a 1/4-inch-deep planting hole in the center of compost mixture. Drop one butterfly weed seed in the planting hole. Cover it with a loose layer of compost. Mist the compost to settle it.

Arrange the starter pots on a propagation mat near a source of bright, indirect light such as near a partly shaded south-facing window. Set the temperature on the propagation mat to 86 F during the day. Turn it off at night.

Water the butterfly weed seeds whenever the compost feels barely damp when pressed. Apply the water by the spoonful or use a spray bottle to keep from dislodging the seeds.

Watch for germination in two to three weeks. Turn off the propagation mat one week after the seeds sprout. Move the pots into a cold frame outdoors or against a south-facing wall with noonday shade.

Transplant the butterfly weed into a permanent bed in spring just after the last frost. If planting butterfly weed in clay soil, dig in 2 to 4 inches of compost to lighten the soil, or consider building raised beds to increase drainage.

Spread a 1-inch-thick layer of mulch around each plant. Water weekly to a 2-inch depth during their first summer, then cease supplemental irrigation.

How to Plant Butterfly Weed Seeds. Sometimes called pleurisy root, butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa) is a perennial wildflower grown for its showy, reddish-orange flower clusters and textured, lanceolate leaves. It thrives throughout U.S. Department of Agriculture plant hardiness zones 4 to 10, where it is …