Butterflyweed, Asclepias tuberosa

Butterflyweed, Asclepias tuberosa.

Butterflyweed is a long-lived herbaceous perennial in the milkweed family (Apocynaceae, formerly Asclepidaceae) native to much of North America except the northwest, from eastern Canada south to Florida, west to the Dakotas down to Colorado and the southwest, except Nevada, into California, but is most widespread in the eastern half of the U.S. With other common names including butterfly milkweed, orange milkweed, pleurisy root and chigger flower, Asclepias tuberosa is found in prairies and meadows, open woods, along roads and other open areas in zones 3-9.

Butterflyweed has many narrow leaves on multiple ascending stems.

This bushy perennial grows an abundance of dark green foliage on multiple erect to ascending stems from a large taproot, forming a clump 1½ to 3 feet tall and wide. Its tough, woody, knobby root that can grow several feet deep was chewed by Native Americans as a cure for pleurisy and other pulmonary conditions. The lanceolate to oblong leaves are primarily alternate, often crowded together on the stout, hairy stems which are green to dull reddish-purple. Each leaf, up to 6 inches long, is sessile or with a very short petiole, pointed at the end and toothless on the margins. The upper surface is smooth and glossy, while the underside is finely hairy, especially along the veins, and lighter in color than the upper side. Unlike most members of the milkweed family, this species does not have milky sap. The leaves turn a dull yellow in fall before the stems die back to the ground for the winter. It is best not to cut the foliage back in fall, but wait until spring. Plants are slow to emerge late in the spring.

Large, flat to slightly dome-shaped umbels (clusters) of up to 25 bright orange star-shaped flowers are produced at the ends of hairy flowering stems or in upper leaf axils from late spring through summer. Each 3/8 inch wide fleshy flower has 5 reflexed petals (corolla) and a 5-parted crown (corona) of 5 curved horns protruding from hoods arching over a short white to light green column in the center.

Flowers are produced at the ends of stems (L), with buds changing from green to orange (LC) to open along the stems (C) for a showy display (RC) of many small 5-parted flowers (R).

Flower color is generally orange but can vary from orange to yellow or red.

These are generally all orange, but there are yellow or red cultivars (such as ‘Hello Yellow’ and ‘Gay Butterflies’) and naturally occurring populations, all usually with a yellow central column. Each cluster is 2-5 inches across, making an excellent landing platform for butterflies. There are also 5 hairy, light green sepals below the petals which are hidden when the flowers open. The flowers produce copious amounts of nectar so are very attractive to hummingbirds and many insects, not just butterflies, and can also be used as cut flowers. Deadheading may stimulate a second flush of flowers about a month later.

Butterflyweed is attractive to many pollinators.

Successfully cross-pollinated flowers are followed by prominent, erect, narrow, spindle-shaped seed pods covered in short hairs (the fruit is a follicle). The 3-6 inch long, grayish-green pods split open when mature to release rows of hundreds of flattened, brown seeds, each with a narrow wing along the margins and a tuft of long, silky hairs (a pappus) at one end that aids in dispersal by wind. Butterflyweed may self-seed in the landscape if plants are allowed to go to seed; remove the pods before they split open to reduce self-seeding. The seed pods can be used in dried floral arrangements.

Butterflyweed can be used as a specimen plants in gardens.

This showy plant makes a great addition to home gardens, prairies, native plantings or for naturalizing, rain gardens, and butterfly gardens. They can be planted in masses or combined as an accent with other mid-sized perennials in the sunny border. The vivid orange color stands out, particularly in combination with blue or purple flowers, but some find the intense color hard to blend in some landscapes. Try combining butterfly weed with blue morning glories, globe thistle (Echinops spp.), Penstemon digitalis ‘Husker Red’, or purple speedwells (Veronica spicata or hybrids) in a mixed garden.

Butterflyweed is a great addition to meadows and prairie plantings.

It or works well with other native perennials such as yellow coreopsis (Coreopsis verticillata), purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea), goldenrod (Solidago spp.), blazing star (Liatris spp.), black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta) and R.fulgida, and grasses such as little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium) or prairie dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis) in a meadow or prairie. It is a larval host plant for several butterflies, including monarch (Danaus plexippus) and the related Queen butterfly (D. gilippus, although this species occurs primarily in Central America into the southern US, but may occasionally stray into the Midwest), so you may want to position the plant in the landscape where won’t be an eyesore if it is eaten ragged by caterpillars.

Butterflyweed needs full sun to thrive.

This plant needs full sun to bloom. Although it prefers sandy soil, butterflyweed grows in almost any type of soil, including gravel or clay, as long as it is well-drained. It is very drought tolerant once established. This plant is not favored by deer, but is quite likely to be infested with aphids – most often the bright yellow oleander aphid with black legs (an introduced species native to the Mediterranean but almost cosmopolitan in distribution now). Small numbers of these insects will not harm the plant, and many times are eaten by lady beetles or other predators. Large populations can be managed with insecticidal soap or reduced by knocking the insects off the plant with a forceful stream of water. Rabbits may eat the plants.

A young butterflyweed plant.

This species is easy to grow from seed, but can also be propagated from root cuttings. Cut the taproot into 2-inch sections in fall and plant in a vertical orientation. Plants will bloom from seed in 2-3 years, and do not transplant well because of the deep taproot. Sow outdoors in place after frost in the fall, in a cold frame in early spring, or start indoors with bottom heat in late winter (8-10 weeks before average last frost) after 1 month moist stratification to carefully transplant outside later. Using 3-4 inch deep containers, particularly with separate cells, will allow the roots to grow deeper and seedlings can be more readily transplanted without disturbing the roots as much.

– Susan Mahr, University of Wisconsin – Madison

Download Article as PDF

Additional Information


  1. Do you have to cutt Butterfly Weed down to the ground in fall? Or is it better to leave it alone? I have found no information on this.. I live in northern Illinois..

  2. Thanks for the information about Asclepias tuberosa. I planted a packet of seeds for it, because a friend and I have been trying to raise monarch butterflies. Only one seed germinated in my garden, and the plant is really tiny. I did feed a couple of leaves to caterpillars, and they loved it. Thanks for the idea to mark its location. My friend bought bare roots, and she got some of the orange flowers. I’m excited to see how the plants become larger over time, and I plan to plant several packets of seeds next year.

  3. I love these articles as we want all natives in our back beds; the comments on this article were very helpful also! We have seen some of these butterfly weedsin various gardens this year and I would love to try them, although we have numerous rabbits and other critters in our yard.

  4. I planted one. The first year it was bush like. The second year it had separate stems. In both cases the plants were massive. I did prune extensively to have a second blooming. Is there a way to have it more bush like????

  5. Just a couple of hints for those who are having problems with Butterfly Weed:
    – Mark where the plant is when it starts to die back so you can find it next year.
    – It comes up very late compared to other plants. Every year I despair that it’s not coming back and it does.
    – Because it comes up so late, you can accidentally kill it if you are using Roundup to kill weeds around your other plants, because you don’t know it’s there, lurking under the soil and about to pop up.
    – It can take three years to become a bushy plant. It may stay long and straight the first year, and have only a handful of stems the second year. Don’t give up! That are worth it! They will grow bigger faster with more sun and good drainage.

  6. Asclepias tuberosa is one of my favorite native plants. I have several of them which I have started indoors in deep rooted plugs. I have found through experimentation that I get pretty good germination without cold, moist stratification. If planted in sterile germinating mix with bottom heat (65 degrees), they will germinate in about 5 to 6 days. As soon as weather allows in spring, I plant them outdoors, where they really will begin to thrive. Sometimes, when still in the cell, they appear as if they are dying, but they usually come back from the root. I was not aware that they could be started from root cuttings; I will be trying this method of propagation next year. I enjoy watching the young monarch caterpillars on the plants and delight in watching them grow big and plump as they munch away slowly on the leaves.

  7. I have tried growing this plant a couple of different times in my garden but it has died each time. I am not sure what the problem is at this point since my garden meets the growing requirements mentioned in this article. Hmmm…I don’t know. Any advice would be appreciated. Thanks.

  8. I have recently cleared a new little area that is sandy, well drained and frequently passed by deer. This sounds like a good choice for attracting butterflies as well as being such a cheerful color.

  9. Hello
    I have a question I have not been able to find an answer to. I hope someone here can help me. It would be greatly appreciated.
    My sister gave me 2 Asclepias tuberosa seedlings that she started. She had purchased a package of a orange and yellow mix. I planted the 2 of them next to each other in 2015.
    In 2016 both plants flowered, but no seed pods formed. 1 plant has orange flowers, the other has yellow.
    This year the yellow plant set seed pods, but not the orange plant.
    My question is: Will the seeds produced by the yellow plant turn out to be yellow plants as well. I’m not sure how this works with Asclepias considering I have the 2 different colored plants next to each other.
    Thank you. Sincerely, Nina

  10. Butterflyweed is not one of my favorites. I live where too many critters might consider it a meal. I did read this for education hours, however did enjoy the information.

  11. I will try growing this next year. Looking forward to eventually seeing more butterflies and hummingbirds. Nice to read deer don’t like them.

  12. I have sandy soil where I live now and would love to try this beautiful orange color Butterfly plant. I think it would look nice near blue morning glories. I have been looking for plants that attract butterflies and hummingbirds.

  13. Butterflyweed was chewed by Native Americans as a cure for pleurisy and other pulmonary conditions. Plants are slow to emerge in the spring so wait to cut foliage back until then. Butterfyweed is very drought tolerant and will grow in any well drained type of soil.

  14. Read for education hours. Glad to hear this plant attracts pollinators and is deer resistant. Bunnies remain problematic. Seems like a low maintenance plant.

  15. This article gave me a few tips for propagating this plant. I buy one or two of these plants every year with marginal survival after a few years. I will try the native species from a prairie nursery from here on in.

  16. I have planted butterfly bushes in the past but they don’t last. They don’t come back the second year. I will try milkweed next year.

    • I was ready to add this to my list of naturalizing plants and shrubs, until I read the part about rabbits eating it. Too bad, it is a perfect addition otherwise and I love that it attracts pollenizers.

    • Hello
      This article states that Rabbits ‘may’ eat the plants.
      I have not had a problem with the Rabbits that live around my area bothering my Butterfly weed.
      Hope they continue to leave it alone.
      I love the Hello Yellow and orange plants that I have.

  17. Great article. I will start these from seed. I didn’t know you could.

  18. I wasn’t aware that butterfly weed is deer resistant. I read this for educational hours.

  19. I love the orange color. I didn’t realize it had medicinal properties.

  20. Always a better understanding. Altho, I have a lot of the plant returning this year. A good bit of information.
    Cathie Nelson

  21. I will look for the butterfly plant for a sunny side butterfly garden on the south side of my home. It is interesting to hear of the Native American usage of this plant.

  22. I did not know that the native milkweed did not produce the milky sap. I also found it interesting it does not like to be transplanted as it has such a deep root. Now I know why the one I put in last year struggled.

  23. I enjoyed your article. I did have a butterfly bush several years ago, but it only last thru the 2nd year. I’ll try this plant this coming year. The flowers are irresistibly cheerful! I did not know that the taproot could be divided and new plants could be started from that portion of the root. Thank you!

  24. Great article. Will plant in the school garden pollinator garden.

  25. I was happy to read about this plant. I recieved the Orange butterfly weed as a gift. I performed marginally in its first year. I am hopeful because it is native that it will do better this year. I am also glad to hear that it is a late comer in the spring. Thank You Patty King

  26. I’ve been telling people in my monarch butterfly programs that Butterfly weed was chosen as the Perennial for the year 2017–not 2016….Am I wrong?

    • Just a typo, probably because it was written in 2016…

  27. I am happy to learn you can propagate Butterfly weed through root cuttings. I have not had success with the cultivars I have planted, but the native species is thriving, even in the heavy clay portions of my flower beds.

Comments are closed.