How to Plant, Grow, and Care for Butterfly Flower

If you are looking for a bright and cheerful addition to the pollinator garden, butterfly flower is a great option. Pollinator enthusiast Melissa Strauss covers all you need to know to grow this wonderful plant in your garden.

A close-up reveals intricate details of butterfly weed plants, showcasing clusters of brilliant orange flowers. The radiant blossoms stand out against a backdrop of lush green leaves, creating a captivating display of nature's harmonious beauty.

Contents

With a name like butterfly flower, it isn’t hard to imagine the role that this plant serves in the garden. A favorite among pollinator enthusiasts, this flowering perennial deserves a spot in any garden. It works especially well in pollinator gardens. 

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Overview

A close-up of the delicate beauty of butterfly weeds. The orange flowers, reminiscent of fluttering butterflies, gracefully adorn the verdant landscape. Each leaf, a testament to nature's artistry, complements the blooms in a perfect botanical symphony.
This perennial plant thrives in full sun with a height of 1’-3’.
Plant Type Perennial
Family Apocynaceae
Genus Asclepias
Species Tuberosa
Native Area North America
Exposure Full sun
Height 1’-3’
Watering Requirements Low
Pests and Diseases Oleander aphids, large milkweed bug nymphs, leaf spot disease, rust, cucumber mosaic virus
Maintenance Low
Soil Type Clay, loam, sand
Soil pH Slightly acidic, neutral

What is Butterfly Flower?

You probably know this plant by its common name, which is milkweed. However, there are more than 70 species of milkweed native to North America. Each has different characteristics and comes from different regions. So, to group them all together would be to ignore the uniqueness of each species.

Butterfly flower, or butterfly weed, is a species of milkweed that is known for its extensive native range. But, perhaps it is more well known for its role in the lifecycle of one of our favorite pollinators, the Monarch butterfly. Milkweeds are the sole larval host plant of the Monarch. Without these plants, the population would become extinct quickly,

Planting this milkweed in your garden will draw butterflies in large numbers. It is not only a larval food but also an excellent nectar source. Let’s take a look at butterfly flower, or Asclepias tuberosa.

History

A vibrant cluster of butterfly weed flowers gracefully adorns the top of slender branches, their orange hues captivating. Lush green leaves form a striking contrast, showcasing the plant's foliage. In the background, a blurred tapestry of more green leaves and a thriving garden adds a harmonious touch.
Native American tribes have long utilized the plant for various medicinal purposes.

The first collected samples of milkweed plants were sent to Europe during the 1500s and 1600s by English explorers. The name Asclepias comes from the Greek word for medicine.

Some Native American tribes harvested parts of the plant for making cloth and ropes, and as a food source.

Parts of this plant are poisonous, though, so do not eat it!

Native Area

Clusters of delicate, orange butterfly weed flowers create a mesmerizing display. The lush green leaves, elegantly shaped, complement the vibrant blossoms. The blurred background unveils a garden filled with verdant greenery, enhancing the overall natural beauty.
The butterfly flower thrives in open prairies from Maine to Florida.

Butterfly flower is native to a large portion of North America, ranging from Maine to South Dakota and south to Florida. It is also native to Canada from Ontario east to the Atlantic coast. It is commonly found in open prairies and grasslands where it gets plenty of sun and air circulation. 

Characteristics

A vibrant cluster of orange butterfly weed flowers captivates with intricate petals. The delicate blooms, resembling miniature crowns, unfold gracefully, attracting pollinators. In the background, a lush tapestry of greenery provides a serene setting.
These flowers are rich in nectar, attracting pollinators in a compact space.

Butterfly flower is a small, perennial, shrubby plant that reaches between one and three feet tall at maturity. Upright, brown stems are flanked with lanceolate leaves, occasionally branching toward the top. For milkweed, this species has attractive and dense foliage, which creates a nice backdrop for the flowers. 

Colorful umbels of flowers in gold and orange sit atop the stems. Each cluster is about two to five inches across and made up of many small flowers. The flowers are tiny and star-shaped with a small yellow center. They are very nectar-rich so pollinators enjoy the abundance of nectar to be accessed in a small space. 

In fall, pollinated flowers give way to long, attractive, brown seed pods. The seed pods break open, revealing many small brown seeds attached to fluffy white silk-like fibers. These fibers help the seeds travel. Unlike most types of milkweed, this one does not contain a white milky sap within its stems and leaves. 

Uses

Butterfly weed plants showcase clusters of vivid orange flowers, creating a burst of color. The distinctive leaves, lance-shaped and arranged alternately, add texture to the scene. The dynamic composition captures the essence of these resilient and beautiful wildflowers.
The showy flowers and strong stems make milkweeds suitable for cutting gardens.

This plant is most often used as an ornamental, but I always say that you don’t plant milkweed because it looks nice. You plant it for the butterflies. Monarchs lay their eggs on this plant. When they hatch, the larvae will completely strip the plant of foliage in a matter of days. This leaves you with bare stems, which is not too pretty.

The flowers are showy, and the stems are strong, so this plant actually makes a nice one for the cutting garden. Otherwise, butterfly flower is mostly planted to attract and feed pollinators rather than for its ornamental beauty. 

There are other practical uses found for parts of the plant. The seed fluff is used to fill pillows and as a fire starter. Various textiles, ropes, and paper can also be made from the fibers of the plant. 

Where to Buy Butterfly Flower

A close-up captures the intricate beauty of butterfly weed flowers, showcasing their brilliant orange hues and delicate flowers.
Discover vibrant butterfly flowers for summer gardens at Botanical Interests’ exclusive collection.

You will find butterfly flower plants in most nurseries in summertime. These can be planted directly into the garden. They grow well from seed. If you prefer a different color, check out the sunny ‘Hello Yellow’ variety

Planting

A close-up of orange butterfly weed flowers. The green leaves of butterfly weeds add a touch of lushness to the composition, complementing the blossoms. Planted in rich brown soil, the entire scene exudes a natural garden serenity.
Plant butterfly flower seeds in fall for early spring blooms.

Butterfly flower is a hardy perennial throughout the United States. The plant goes dormant in early winter, re-emerging in spring. Seeds can be planted in spring or fall. If you sow your seeds in fall, they will bloom earlier in spring. Planting in spring is perfectly fine, as these are mainly summer bloomers. 

Directly sow your butterfly flower seeds about ¼” deep, planting three seeds every one to two feet apart. Your seeds should sprout in about three weeks as long as the soil is warm enough. When they are three inches tall, thin your plants to one every one to two feet. 

How to Grow

Butterfly flower, like all milkweeds, is exceptionally easy to grow and maintain. Because they have such a wide native range, these plants are well-adapted to most climates. Once they are established, they are almost invincible. 

Light

A close-up of butterfly weeds reveals intricate flower clusters, their vibrant hues attracting buzzing bees atop the blossoms. In the background, blurred green leaves provide a lush setting, enhancing the delicate beauty of the butterfly weed blooms.
Ensure plants’ optimal growth by providing ample sunlight.

Most milkweeds, this one included, perform best in full sun. In most climates, it would be difficult to give your milkweed too much sun. In warm climates with hot summers, give your plants some late afternoon shade. This will give them a break from the intense heat. 

Water

A close-up captures the vivid beauty of butterfly weed flowers, showcasing their unique structure and vibrant colors. Surrounded by blurred green leaves, these blossoms create a stunning focal point, drawing attention to the intricate details of nature's design.
Avoid overwatering milkweeds to prevent lethal fungus.

This plant is drought-resistant and shouldn’t be watered frequently. In most environments, this plant won’t need any supplemental water. The exception is in times of lasting drought. During a drought, you should water your milkweed deeply but infrequently. Allow the soil to dry in between waterings. 

Overwatering these plants is one of the most detrimental habits. If you water your butterfly flower too much or too often, it can develop a lethal fungus in the root system. This can kill the plant entirely. The plant’s long taproot contributes to its drought tolerance.

Soil

A close-up reveals rich, fertile loamy soil, teeming with nutrients and a dark, crumbly texture. In the foreground, a gardening shovel and rake stand, their brown wood handles contrasting against the earthy backdrop of abundance.
Butterfly flower’s taproot ensures drought tolerance but complicates transplantation.

This perennial plant likes dry to average soil and doesn’t tolerate wet feet. Well-drained soil is imperative to avoid that dreaded root rot. The composition of the soil is not as important a factor as drainage. But in general, loamy, sandy, and gravelly soil types work well. This plant tolerates clay better than most

The long taproot that makes butterfly flower drought tolerant also makes it more difficult to transplant. Once you’ve selected a spot for this plant, it is best to leave it where it is. Moving to a new location is discouraged.

In terms of soil pH, these plants prefer soil that is slightly acidic to neutral and has a lower salt content. The immature plants are sensitive to salt and ammonium, but this decreases as the plant ages. 

Temperature and Humidity

A close-up showcases vibrant orange flowers of butterfly weed, gracefully dancing amidst lush greenery in the blurred background. Each blossom exudes a burst of color, while the overall scene evokes a sense of natural harmony.
This tough plant adapts effortlessly to various humidity levels.

Asclepias tuberosa is hardy in USDA Zones 3-9, so it tolerates a fair amount of cold weather. The portion of the plant above ground will die back after a freeze but will return in spring, as the roots are hardy. Likewise, these plants are highly heat tolerant and withstand temperatures as high as 113°F.

Humidity is not a main factor in growing butterfly flowers. With such a wide geographical range, it adapts to both high and low humidity with ease. Overall, this is a very tough plant that thrives in an extensive range of climates. 

Fertilizing

hand carefully places rich organic brown fertilizers around small green seedlings. These nutrient-rich fertilizers, derived from natural sources, enhance soil health and promote sustainable growth. The small green seedlings thrive in the nutrient-enriched brown soil.
Fertilize the plant annually in spring and supplement with compost at planting.

You should only need to fertilize this plant once a year, in spring. Of course, like most plants, this one will benefit from adding some compost or other organic fertilizer at the time of planting.

After that, a once-yearly application of a balanced fertilizer will do the job. Milkweeds prefer balanced nutrients, so use a 10-10-10 or 20-20-20 formula. Liquids are gentler than slow-release fertilizers, and natives like milkweed don’t need more than a side dressing of compost.

Maintenance

A close-up of the intricate beauty of butterfly weeds. The clusters of vibrant flowers adorn the plant. Surrounding the blossoms, lush green leaves provide a striking backdrop, contributing to the plant's overall charm.
These self-seeding plants benefit from pruning after seed formation.

You may be tempted to cut back your plant after it has been stripped by caterpillars. There is no need to do this. This will only serve to reduce the amount of food for the next generation of Monarch larvae. If you’re able to wait out the bare stem phase, your milkweed leaves will grow back. This usually happens just in time for another round of caterpillars to move in. 

This flowering plant does self-seed vigorously. The best time to do your pruning is after it has gone to seed but before the pods open. When the pods first develop, they will be green and flexible.

Once they mature, they will dry on the outside and eventually split, releasing lots of small seeds. Before the seed pods ripen, in late September or October, cut your plant back to about six inches from the ground. 

Growing in Containers

A close-up reveals the intricate details of butterfly weed flowers, displaying a captivating mix of red, orange, and yellow hues. The green leaves surrounding the blossoms add a lush backdrop, all flourishing within a small black pot.
Potted ones benefit from fertile soil compared to ground ones.

Butterfly flower has an upright growth habit, which makes it good for growing in containers. Spring is the ideal time to plant these in containers. They should be placed in large pots because of their long tap root and fast growth. A 14”-16” container should work well for a single plant. 

Even though they can thrive in poor soil types in the ground, these plants should have more fertile soil when potted. Potted plants need to be watered more often than those in-ground, which aids in washing nutrients out of the soil. 

Rich soil will keep your milkweed plants growing robustly. Make sure that the container you choose has good drainage. Water your potted plants every other day as needed when the top inch of the soil is dry. 

While this plant is generally cold-hardy, in containers it is less so. Butterfly flowers should be pruned back in fall. Then the container should be brought indoors or otherwise protected. The roots of potted plants are more vulnerable to cold than those in the ground. 

Propagation

A close-up of a butterfly weed plant showcases its striking orange flower clusters. Nestled atop green branches adorned with lush leaves, the plant radiates natural beauty. This thriving scene captures the essence of a well-cultivated butterfly weed in full bloom.
Propagating this plant is best achieved by seeding.

Planting seeds is an effective way to propagate this plant. All types of milkweed grow well from seeds, and the plants self-seed readily in fall. So much so that you may want to remove the pods before they ripen. This will prevent having too many of these plants popping up in spring. 

Direct sow seeds in fall or spring, or start your seeds indoors over the winter. Remember that these plants have long tap roots that don’t like to be disturbed, so transplant your seedlings while they are small.

You can also reliably propagate this plant by taking cuttings and rooting them in water. Cut your stem cuttings and dip the end in rooting hormone. Place your cuttings in a moist potting medium made up of potting soil, sand, vermiculite, or a combination. Keep your cuttings consistently moist, and they should root within two to three months.

Common Problems

Lack of Flowers

A close-up reveals the butterfly weed's long stem adorned with vibrant green leaves. The small, striking orange flowers of the butterfly plant stand out, though there is a noticeable absence of blossoms. In the blurred background, lush green plants fill the garden scene.
Lack of sunlight is likely the reason your milkweed isn’t blooming.

Butterfly flower needs full sun. When they are planted in partial to full shade, they may fail to bloom completely or very scarcely. These plants typically bloom their first year, so if your milkweed is not blooming, it probably needs more sunlight.

Pests

A close-up captures the vivid orange flowers of the butterfly weed in exquisite detail. Among the blossoms, a sizable monarch caterpillar gracefully navigates the petals. The big monarch caterpillar adds a dynamic touch, while in the background, other green leaves create a harmonious botanical backdrop.
Enhance garden defense with beneficial insects like ladybugs for natural pest control.

There are a handful of garden pests that may come after your milkweed, including caterpillars, if you count them as pests. However, these host monarch butterfly larvae, and leaving them be is best for the ecosystem. Milkweed bugs are a culprit in damaging these plants. They sometimes feed on the tissue and seeds of the plant and, occasionally, eat small caterpillars. Mostly they feed on aphids.

Oleander aphids are also known to feed on milkweed, but these are not usually a great issue. A great way to fend off pests is by attracting beneficial predatory insects. Ladybugs and lacewings are great for this purpose. However, none of these pests have a largely detrimental effect on milkweed, even in large numbers.

Because they are butterfly larval food, it is best to avoid using pesticides. Chemical pesticides will also harm the beneficial insects.

Diseases

A close-up showcases the intricate details of a milkweed plant. Golden-yellow flowers bloom delicately, inviting pollinators. A ladybug perches on the top, posing a potential threat to the plant's well-being. Lush green leaves form a captivating backdrop.
Thinning plants enhances air circulation, minimizing fungal risks.

Most disease issues will involve fungus in this type of plant. There are good plant hygiene practices that can drastically reduce the occurrence of these diseases. Watering the roots of the plant, and not the leaves, will help to keep them dry. Wet leaves are a breeding ground for fungus. 

Another important way to avoid fungal issues is to thin out your plants. This allows for better air circulation. If you do notice leaves affected by disease, remove the affected foliage as soon as you spot it. Spraying the plant with a solution of four parts water to one part hydrogen peroxide will kill the fungus spores. 

Cucumber mosaic virus can affect some Asclepias species, but it is often not a huge issue. You can remove infected plants and avoid planting in the area to prevent spreading this disease to other susceptible species.

Frequently Asked Questions

Is Butterfly Flower Poisonous to Pets?

The sap in milkweed plants is toxic to humans and animals, but only if consumed in large quantities. If your pet has a nibble, it will not harm them. The taste is bitter, so most animals will not eat enough to hurt them.

Will Butterfly Flower Grow Back After Caterpillars Eat the Foliage?

Yes! After the caterpillars strip the plant, it might be bare for a month, but the leaves will grow back the same season.

Will Deadheading Make My Plant Produce More Flowers?

Deadheading will do more than prevent the plant from going to seed. It will also encourage a second flush of flowers late in the season.

Final Thoughts

Adding this bright and cheerful flowering plant to your garden does more than spice up the color palette with its yellow and orange flowers. It also draws plenty of pollinators, most notably the Monarch butterfly.

By adding this plant to your garden, you are sure to have a butterfly nursery going in no time at all. Beauty and function come together in this pretty and versatile garden plant. 

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