The Perennial Plant Association has named Butterfly Weed (Asclepias tuberosa) the Perennial Plant of the Year for 2017. This native perennial wildflower has become one of our favorites for its size, shape, color, length of bloom time, low maintenance nature, and ability to attract all sorts of bees and butterflies to our outdoor space. You may have seen these bright orange flowers basking in the sun around town before. Their bright orange color makes them easy to spot from May to July, and they compliment so many other native plants as well. When going turkey hunting each year in May, I keep my eyes open for a certain field whose corner has been allowed to grow wild. If I’m lucky, and the timing is just right, I can see a magnificent Butterfly Weed in full bloom growing 20 or so yards away from the fence line. Surrounded by various shades of green, this orange eye candy pops off the landscape, just like the Golden Arches, beckoning numerous pollinators to pay it a visit. With so many great characteristics, and widespread availability in local nurseries and home improvement stores, it’s no wonder why Butterfly Weed has become such a popular addition to so many gardens and landscapes… as well as earning the title of top perennial plant in America for 2017.
Not only is Butterfly Weed a top notch native nectar source, it is also a member of the Milkweed family. Monarch butterflies rely solely on Milkweed for their survival since it is the only family of plants the Monarch will use as their larval host. In our experience, Butterfly Weed isn’t the Monarch’s Milkweed of choice, rather preferring instead to lay their eggs on other types of Milkweed… like Common and Swamp. However, we have found a few Monarch eggs and caterpillars on the Butterfly Weed plants in our backyard. It is an easy plant to grow when planted in dry to medium soils in full sun. Butterfly Weed doesn’t like it supper wet, and if you have heavy clay, like so many of us do, Butterfly Weed can struggle. To help with this, we prepare our spaces by first digging up and loosening the soil down to about a foot deep and then lightly amending the soil with the compost we’ve made using our fall leaves and grass clippings. These two important steps enable the soil to drain well while also allowing for faster root growth. Due to its tap root, Butterfly Weed becomes very drought resistant while also becoming difficult to transplant successfully. Preparing the site is an important part in making Butterfly Weed a happy camper in your outdoor space. With a little planning and preparation, Butterfly Weed can find a happy home in your outdoor space as well.
One way to add Butterfly Weed to your own outdoor space is by growing it from seed. This of course takes time and patience, but can also be a fun learning experience, especially for those who have kids. One note of caution, Milkweed plants, and their seeds, are toxic and should not be ingested. While working with our own kids we use extra care to ensure none of the seeds wind up in their mouths. Below you’ll find the steps we use in preparing our Butterfly Weed seeds when using the “Paper Towel” method of cold stratification. Our one year old daughter Elsie agreed to lend a hand and join in on the fun for this one.
- We begin by purchasing our seed packets from a local garden center. Many large home improvement stores have Butterfly Weed among the seeds they have for sale. For each seed packet you’ll need one paper towel, one quart sized resealable plastic bag, and a sticky note or small strip of paper and tape. I also recommend using a spray bottle with water, a cookie sheet, and a regular old pencil, for you’re when ready to label your bag(s).
- Once you get set up, start by spraying the paper towel with water. You want to get it damp, but not dripping wet. Open up a seed packet and pour out all of the seeds on one half of the paper towel. I usually spread them out so they aren’t overlapping each other.
- Next, we spray the seeds until their damp… but be careful… your young assistant might turn the spray bottle on you!
- We then fold the paper towel over and spray the top a few more times before patting the two layers together, ensuring good contact between the seeds in the middle and the outside paper towel.
- After that, we carefully slide the paper towel into the quart sized bag, seal it up, and place a label on the outside. The bag will then go into our fridge for 30 days in an attempt to “trick” the seeds into thinking it’s winter. This process is called cold, moist stratification, and many native plants require a cold dormancy period before they will germinate. We check the bag(s) about once a week to ensure they are staying damp and if any of the seeds have started to germinate we’ll plant those as soon as possible.
- Once 30 days have passed the seeds are ready to plant. We simply remove the paper towel from the bag, spray the seeds with warm water, and plant them in our seed starting trays. For better germination success, place your planted seeds in a warm place and continue to spray the soil with water when needed. Once seeds have sprouted, give them as much light as you can. We place our seed trays on a seedling heating mat and under fluorescent lights for the first month or two, continuing to mist and water as the new seedlings start to take off. Once plants have grown a few inches, and had a chance to grow their first few sets of leaves, plants are ready to transplant into a larger pot and begin the hardening off process where plants transition from growing inside to outside.
If growing Butterfly Weed, or other native plants, from seed interests you and you’d like more information on how to get started, we’d love to help. If you’d rather skip the work of growing your own plants we can sell you some of ours and let you take all the credit. Contact us and let us know how we can serve you. Join the movement… more Milkweed… more Monarchs!!!
– Jay Parsons