This bright and cheery herbaceous perennial grows 1-2' tall and is commonly found adorned by butterflies and hummingbirds in dry, open habitats and along roadsides in Ohio. It grows easily in most well-drained, medium to dry soils and full sun, blooming for up to two months between May and September. Another common name, orange milkweed, is an acknowledgment of the plant’s large, flat-topped clusters of tiny orange flowers laden with nectar and pollen and a reminder that the plant belongs to the milkweed family. The erect stems are loaded with glossy, lance-shaped foliage that provides a bushy, dark green setting for the flowers. Unlike the milky sap in the leaves and stems of other milkweeds, the clear sap of butterfly weed has lower latex levels and less toxicity. In the fall, the narrow, grayish-green pods split open to release seeds with white, silky tufts for wind dispersal.
Milkweed’s genus is named for Asklepios, the Greek god of medicine, and tuberosa refers to this species’ tuberous roots. The less-flattering name of “chigger flower” refers to mites that occasion the plant’s hairy stems. Butterfly weed is also called pleurisy root because Native Americans chewed the tough root as a cure for pleurisy and other pulmonary conditions.
This plant typically grows from seeds but doesn’t transplant well because of the deep tap root. It reaches maturity and produces flowers after two or three years. Water regularly to maintain a moist soil in the first year. Once established, it prefers a drier soil and will tolerate drought. Fertilizer is not needed and may actually harm the plant and discourage blooming. While mostly trouble free, butterfly weed is susceptible to aphids, which may be controlled with neem oil or predator insects such as ladybugs. The plant spreads readily by reseeding, but removing pods before they split will help control the spread.
Native habitats include open woods, prairies, and meadows. An obvious choice for pollinator gardens, butterfly weed is a complementary plant for blues and purples in formal and mixed borders, meadow gardens, and naturalized areas.
Grows 1-2’ tall and 12-18” wide.
Does best in full sun.
Prefers gravelly or sandy soils with added loam for acidity, but it’s tolerant of most well-drained soils.
Tiny orange to yellow flowers packed in clusters 2-5” across appear at the tops of stems May-September, followed by hairy pods 4-8” long that contain layers of seeds with silky tails.
Stiff, lance-shaped, green leaves up to 6” long grow densely on stout, hairy stems ascending from a large tap root.
Host plant to 12 species of Lepidoptera larvae, including Isabella tiger moth, hitched arches moth, and 3 specialists--monarch butterfly, unexpected cycnia, and milkweed tussock moth.
Medicinal, Edible, and Other Uses:
The fresh root was chewed for bronchitis and other respiratory complaints. A tea of the root was used for diarrhea.
The flowers are a delightful addition to cut-flower arrangements.
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