Butterfly weed, Asclepias tuberosa, is fast becoming a popular garden flower. It is one of the most easily seen and recognized of Ozark wildflowers.
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Asclepias tuberosa L.
May to September N Family: Asclepiaceae
Flower: Flowers range from lemon yellow through most commonly orange to red. The corolla is backswept. The five wells have the outer wall elongated and standing upright. The five horns arch over to the central disk. The flowers are in flat topped umbels from the tips of branches and nearby leaf nodes.
Leaf: The leaves are alternate and sessile. The top surface is dark green. The under surface is light green with a prominent midvein. The other veins are in a network. Short hairs cover the leaves especially the edges and veins.
Stem: The stem is hairy and ranges from green to purple. It goes up then bends over often with a branch or two.
Root: This plant has a rhizome.
Fruit: Each umbel can produce several long seed pods. They tend to stay slender with a groove down one side. They are covered with short hairs and ripen to a purplish brown. The groove splits releasing the tufted seeds into the wind.
Habitat: Butterfly Weed loves the sun. It grows along roadsides, in pastures, glades, open ground. It is often in drier areas.
Chigger Flower, Pleurisy Root
Asclepias tuberosa is a perennial so the plants show up in much the same places every year. Their flower color is so distinctive I watch for it trying to spot the first one to bloom.
Most butterfly weed around here is vivid orange. Some are paler, more yellow or even true lemon yellow. Some are deep red.
Some special flowers are two toned. They open as yellow. The backswept corolla remains so but the wells darken to red. These flowers are quite striking.
The greatest enemy of these plants is the roadside brush cutter. Unlike other milkweeds, butterfly weed will try to grow new stems and bloom again. It takes its toll on the plants and these may disappear after a few years.
Some of the older people in the area have successfully transplanted a special plant to their home. The fleshy fragile rhizome makes this very difficult. Failures are more common than successes but not mentioned.
The easiest way to have these plants in the home garden is to start them from seed or purchase nursery plants. I was told the plant can be propagated by layering as well. The low growth habit, prolific blooming, vivid colors and attraction of butterflies have made this a popular garden plant.
Although larger butterflies will stop by, I’ve seen pipevine and tiger swallowtails, most of the butterflies are smaller. Pearl crescent, little sulfurs, various skippers and gray hairstreaks hang around them creating a multicolored cloud. The usual wasps and bumblebees tromp around pollinating the flowers.
This milkweed is unusual in two ways. It has alternate leaves. It has clear instead of milky sap. Monarchs do lay eggs on it. Their caterpillars do seem to mature on the plants.
Whether growing wild or in a garden, butterfly weed is worth stopping and admiring.