Learn how to grow butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa), a low maintenance perennial that attracts butterflies and their larvae all season long. 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 … Asclepias tuberosa (Butterfly Weed) milkweed has attractive, bright orange flowers in late spring and is a nectar source for bees and butterflies.
How to Grow and Care for Butterfly Weed
Colleen Vanderlinden is an organic gardening expert and author of the book “Edible Gardening for the Midwest.” She has grown fruits and vegetables for over 12 years and professionally written for 15-plus years. To help move the organic gardening movement forward, she started an organic gardening website, “In the Garden Online,” in 2003 and launched the Mouse & Trowel Awards in 2007 to recognize gardening bloggers.
Julie Thompson-Adolf is a master gardener and author. She has 13+ years of experience with year-round organic gardening; seed starting and saving; growing heirloom plants, perennials, and annuals; and sustainable and urban farming.
Emily Estep is a plant biologist and fact-checker focused on environmental sciences. She received a Bachelor of Arts in Journalism and a Master of Science in Plant Biology from Ohio University. Emily has been a proofreader and editor at a variety of online media outlets over the past decade.
The Spruce / Adrienne Legault
Butterfly weed is a must-have plant for gardeners looking to coax the namesake winged insects into the garden. This clump-forming perennial grows from tuberous roots to a height of one to two feet and is characterized by glossy-green, lance-shaped leaves and clusters of bright orange-to-yellow blooms that are rich with nectar and pollen.
A type of milkweed, butterfly weed is generally planted in late spring after the soil is warm. It is fairly slow to become established and may take as much as three years before it flowers. When it finally does flower, its clusters of bright orange-yellow flowers will display from late spring until late summer. Unlike other milkweeds, butterfly weed does not have caustic milky sap, but it does produce the characteristic seed pods that release silky-tailed seeds to disperse on the wind.
Butterfly weed is considered mildly toxic to humans and to animals. But because it has much lower levels of the toxic sap found in standard milkweed, butterfly weed is regarded as a safer plant in homes with children or pets.
|Common Name||Butterfly weed, butterfly milkweed, pleurisy root, orange milkweed|
|Botanical Name||Asclepias tuberosa|
|Plant type||Herbaceous perennial|
|Mature size||1–2 ft. tall, 12 to 18 in. wide|
|Soil type||Dry, well-drained|
|Soil pH||Slightly acid to neutral (6.0 to 7.0)|
|Flower color||Orange, yellow|
|Hardiness zones||3–9 (USDA)|
|Native area||North America (eastern and southeastern U.S.)|
|Toxicity||Mildly toxic to animals and humans|
Butterfly Weed Care
Beloved for its ability to attract a variety of helpful (and beautiful) insects to the garden, butterfly weed is an easy-to-nurture herbaceous perennial that can also be found growing as a native wildflower in a slew of untamed environments, such as meadows, prairies, and forest clearings.
Typically grown from seeds you sow directly in the garden, butterfly weed does not require much tending to in order to thrive, prospering well in sandy, dry, rocky soil, and even in drought-like conditions.
Its seed pods will turn brown towards the end of the growing season (early autumn) and if left on the plant, they will burst and spread seeds throughout your garden to emerge as new volunteer plants 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.
Like other types of milkweed, butterfly weed produces large seed pods that disperse small seeds with hairs that disperse on the wind. Thus, it can be an invasive plant that spreads every which way unless you break off the seed pods before they mature and split. Be careful when using this plant in gardens near wild prairie or meadow areas, as spreading is likely.
If possible, choose a spot in your garden that boasts lots of bright sunlight daily, as this plant loves to soak up the rays. Full sun is definitely your best bet.
Butterfly weed can prosper in a variety of soil conditions and compositions, from sand to gravel, and it generally prefers a neutral to slightly acidic pH.
During its first year of life (or until new plants start showing mature growth), you should maintain a moist soil environment for butterfly weed, giving it about one inch of water per week through combined rainfall and irrigation.
Once the plant appears to be well-established, you can cut back to watering it only occasionally, as it now prefers dry soil. An extensive, deep taproot helps it thrive even in dry conditions. Mature plants can do well with just monthly watering in all but the driest climates.
Temperature and Humidity
Butterfly weed thrives in a variety of different temperature and humidity settings, growing well in zones 3 to 9. 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 handles high-humidity and arid climates equally well, provided it gets adequate soil moisture.
Butterfly weed is a low-maintenance plant that does not require any additional fertilization. In fact, doing so can harm the plant, making it excessively leggy and reducing blooms.
Types of Butterfly Weed
There are a number of named cultivars of this plant. Most varieties, as well as the native species, are orange. But some popular varieties offer color variations:
- ‘Hello Yellow’ is a variety with bright yellow flowers.
- ‘Gay Butterflies’ has decidedly reddish flowers.
- ‘Western Gold Mix’ has golden-orange flowers and is bred especially for the alkaline soils of the western U.S.
Pruning Butterfly Weed
Though butterfly weed does not need much pruning throughout the year, it can be cut back to the ground ahead of the winter season. In late autumn, you’ll notice the leaves on the butterfly weed are beginning to yellow and the stems are drying out and turning brown. This is a sign that the plant is entering dormancy for the season. At this point, you can take a clean set of pruning shears and cut the plant to the ground, where it will stay until it reemerges in spring.
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. 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 at the base of the pollinated 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.
If you want to start seed indoors, the seeds need cold stratification. Place seeds in moist seed starting mix in a container, then cover with a lid and leave in the refrigerator for two months. Remove from the refrigerator eight weeks before last expected frost, and place in a warm spot under grow lights. Do not let seeds dry out.
Once the seedlings have two sets of true leaves, pot them up in potting soil, and continue to grow inside. As temperatures warm outside and all danger of frost has passed, harden off seedlings for a week, then transplant in the garden.
Overwintering butterfly weed is a simple matter of cutting off the plant stem near ground level as soon as the plant succumbs to cold temperatures in the fall or early winter. There is no harm to leaving the plant stalks in place, though this encourages rampant self-seeding, which is usually not desired. Don’t mulch over the root crowns, as this can encourage rot.
Common Pests and Plant Diseases
In most circumstances, butterfly weed is largely trouble-free, but it can be susceptible to root rot if it is planted in dense soil that gets too much moisture. It can also be susceptible to fungal diseases such as rust and other leaf spots, though these are usually merely cosmetic and not fatal.
The plant can be susceptible to aphid damage, which usually is controlled by lady beetles and other predator insects. The plant serves as a host plant to many butterflies, including monarchs, so expect the leaves to be eaten. Do not use pesticides on milkweed.
How to Get Butterfly Weed to Bloom
In general, butterfly weed is not a difficult plant to cultivate and should bloom freely on its own once it has reached maturity (which can take up to three years). That being said, if you’re struggling to get your butterfly weed to bloom, there could be a few factors at play.
It’s important to get your watering cadence right for the plant. It should be watered regularly until new growth starts to appear (this includes leaves and stems, not just blooms), at which point you can decrease the frequency with which you water. Additionally, butterfly weed plants should not be fertilized. While fertilizer may work to make other plants bloom, it can actually harm butterfly weed and discourage blooming. If the plant is not receiving adequate sunlight, it may not bloom, Consider moving it to a new location.
Common Problems With Butterfly Weed
Other than the root rot that can appear in dense, wet soils, there are only a couple of common problems with butterfly weed.
The most common issue with butterfly weed is the rampant self-seeding that happens if the seed pods aren’t removed before they burst and scatter their seeds. This can be prevented by removing the seed pods before they dry and burst open. The volunteer plants that appear due to self-seeding should be removed before they establish long tap roots.
Butterfly weed is very attractive to feeding rabbits. Rodent repellant granules or sprays can provide some prevention, but metal fencing around the plants is the best solution.
These are very similar plants and members of the same plant genus. Both are of great value to butterflies and other pollinators. But butterfly weed has notable orange flowers, while milkweed has white or pink/mauve flowers. Further, milkweed is notably toxic, with the potential for fatality if large quantities are consumed by humans or animals. Butterfly weed, on the other hand, has rather mild toxicity, and fatalities are very rare.
Butterfly weed is, of course, a mainstay of butterfly gardens, though it is not quite as attractive to monarch butterflies as is the common milkweed. It is also commonly used in meadow gardens or any landscape design devoted to natural wildflowers. In the mixed border, landscapers find that the bright orange color blends well with blues and purples, such as purple coneflower, Liatris, or globe thistle. It also works well when blended with other yellow and orange flowers, such as coreopsis or black-eyed Susan.
First grown in the prairies of the Midwestern United States, butterfly weed boasts a long medicinal history. Native Americans used to chew the roots as a remedy for pleurisy and other pulmonary issues, and it can also be brewed into tea for treating diarrhea and other stomach ailments. But due to its mild toxicity, butterfly weed should never be eaten uncooked.
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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. 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.
Butterfly Weed Seeds (Asclepias)
Asclepias tuberosa (Butterfly Weed) milkweed has attractive, bright orange flowers in late spring and is a favorite nectar source for bees and butterflies.
USDA Hardiness Planting Zones
To determine if a plant is sufficiently cold hardy, the USDA created numbered zones indicating winter low temperatures; the lower the zone number the colder the winter.
- If the coldest winter temperature expected in your area is -15°F (zone 5) then any plants rated zones 3-5 will survive the winter temperatures in your area.
- If you live in very warm winter areas (zones 9-11) plants with zones 3-4 ratings are not recommended. The lack of freezing winter temperatures do not provide a time for winter dormancy (rest).
Find Your Planting Zone:
Asclepias (Milkweed) are sun loving plants that are essential perennials for monarch butterflies providing food for caterpillars and nectar for adult butterflies. They bloom from mid-summer into early fall and, with their milky sap, are resistant to rabbits and deer.
Asclepias can be divided into two groups for plant care; Asclepias tuberosa with orange (sometimes yellow) flowers and all the other species with pink (sometimes white) flowers.
Planting Milkweed Seeds:
Milkweed (Asclepias) seeds germinate best under warm soil conditions. The seeds need a cold, dormant period, known as stratification, to germinate.
They can be successfully seeded outdoors in fall in areas that received frost, for spring germination. For mid to late spring planting, all species (A. tuberosa, A. syriaca, A. sullivantii, A. incarnata) will also germinate moderately well when seeded into warm ground after being stratified (chilled).
Dry stratification is done by placing dry seed in the refrigerator for 30 or more days. A more effective strategy is to moist stratify them by mixing seed with moist (not soggy) sand in a zip-lock plastic bag and place them in the refrigerator for 30 days. After 30 days of cold moist storage, the seed’s natural chemical germination inhibitors have dissipated and are ready to sprout.
Asclepias tuberosa (Orange Butterfly Weed) – this perennial stays dormant until later in the spring than many other plants, especially when grown in pots. It’s fine to plant dormant plants; don’t up-pot them for planting later in the growing season.
Preferred growing conditions:
- Need sandy or gravelly soils (except the Clay form which does well in heavier soils including dry clay.)
- Does best with gravel mulches.
- After their second growing season, only requires deep but infrequent watering. Plant in full hot sun.
- Just a few handfuls of compost and Yum Yum Mix added to the planting hole is enough. Don’t plant into a rich, highly-amended soil.
- When planting dormant plants, water thoroughly after planting and wait to water again until the plant comes into active growth, at which time a deep watering every week or so is adequate. Take care not to overwater young transplants.
- Asclepias has a long, carrot-like tap root that should remain undisturbed after planting and should NOT ever be divided.
Preferred growing conditions:
- These species grow in a wide range of soil types, including clay.
- They don’t need mulching (except in very hot climates).
- These are moisture-loving perennials and do well in wet to moderately moist soil conditions.
- Plant in full to part sun areas.
- They like compost enriched soils at planting time.
- Asclepias syriaca and A. speciosa will spread to make big patches of plants and are best planted in parts of the landscape where they won’t crowd out less vigorous plants. Not recommended for the prime spots in your perennial beds.
- Asclepias incarnata (Swamp Milkweed) is a more refined grower and is fine to include in perennial beds.
Oftentimes, Milkweeds won’t grow much their first season in the ground, so be patient. They are establishing their root system and crown. By the second growing season, the plants will begin to get bigger and look more robust. Asclepias species are an odd bunch and don’t behave like many other more familiar perennials. So be patient and accept their quirky nature.
- Fertilize Asclepias just once in fall with Yum Yum Mix and Planters II. – Naturalized plantings don’t need additional fertilization.
- To encourage re-seeding and provide winter interest with their ornamental seed pods, leave the stems intact over the winter. In mid-spring, remove old stems just above ground level.
- All species of Asclepias are late to emerge in the spring, so don’t be concerned if other perennials come up first and they remain dormant.
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