Butterfly Weed

Asclepias tuberosa

Butterfly WeedWhat an interesting series of common names are attached to this one native perennial — Indian paintbrush, pleurisy root, chigger flower and the more well-known butterfly weed. Found growing naturally as a wildflower in dry open fields or near roadsides, butterfly weed is also a native tallgrass prairie flower. But this versatile old-timer is now making its way into backyard gardens where it cooperates beautifully with other naturalistic plantings. And certainly the present interest in creating butterfly-friendly gardens has rekindled its demand, for there are few other flowers that are guaranteed to be such a strong butterfly magnet as this one.

A member of the milkweed family, butterfly weed differs from its cousins by exuding a watery juice from the leaves and stems, not the more common milky sap. Its bright orange flowers, which are clustered at the top of hairy stems, are a beacon for attracting the monarch butterfly that alights to sip nectar from its fragrant blossoms. Later in the season, the plant produces narrow, hairy pods shaped like tiny spindles.

Butterfly weed is perfectly at home in dry, sandy soil and is very drought-tolerant. Since Asclepias has a taproot (which helps it to withstand drought), it is more difficult to transplant, but is quite easily grown from seed. Once properly sited, it is virtually maintenance-free and pest-free. Don't be alarmed in the spring if you can't find it at first in the garden — butterfly weed may be slow to emerge, but it is a reliable native perennial.

Here at the Chicago Botanic Garden, Asclepias is found in the Native Plant Garden, the Sensory Garden, certain parking lot areas and, of course, the Prairie. One especially cheerful yellow cultivar is called 'Hello Yellow'.