What Is It Wednesday: Butterflyweed

Name: Butterflyweed (Asclepias tuberosa)

Also known as: Butterfly Milkweed, Orange Milkweed, Pleurisy Root

Topped by bright and flat clusters of flowers, Butterflyweed it not easily missed. This perennial grows 1-3 ft tall and spreads out like a bush. Its pointed leaves are green, smooth-edged, and grow to about 2 inches in length in an alternate pattern. Its bright flowers can be orangish, yellowish, or reddish in appearance and contain 5 petals crowned by 5 hoods. Flower clusters can measure up to 5 inches across and provide an excellent feeding zone for hummingbirds, butterflies, bees, and other insects. The roots of this plant are tough and woody and can grow fairly deep in the ground. Its slender, hairy, grayish-green seedpods are 3-6 inches in length and contain hundreds of brown seeds. Each seed sports a white, silky tuft of hair, which will help it to be carried away by the wind once the seedpod ripens and opens. Native from Ontario to Newfoundland, this plant can be seen in full bloom from May to September and begins to seed at the end of the summer/the beginning of fall. It’s best to grow Butterflyweed from seed rather than transplanting. They require 3-month stratification, so plant the seeds in the fall and watch them grow in the following spring.

Although Butterflyweed is part of the Milkweed family, it’s kind of the black sheep of the bunch. Milkweed plants are known for their milky-looking sap, but the sap of Butterflyweed is translucent. Both are toxic, though, and provide an added protection to the Monarch, Gray Hairstreak, and Queen butterflies that use this plant as a larval host.

You might be wondering why this beautiful and beneficial plant is often referred to as Butterflyweed. The answer lies within its ability to “grow like a weed”. Butterflyweed prefers a well-drained, sandy soil, but it has the ability and willingness to grow in most types of well-drained soil substrates. They grow in a variety of places, such as prairies, hillsides, grasslands, open woodlands, fields, and roadsides. Once established, Butterflyweed becomes extremely tolerant to drought conditions and as long as some sunlight is available, its flowers will bloom.

Historically, Indigenous peoples used the root of this plant medicinally. Those that suffered from pleurisy or other pulmonary ailments were given the hardy root of this plant to chew on for treatment, hence the name “Pleurisy Root”. The root was also chewed or brewed into tea to treat respiratory issues and diarrhea.

Fun Fact: The Latin word Asclepias was derived from Asklepios, the name of the Greek god of medicine and the word tuberosa is used to reference the tuberous roots of the plant.