Lifestyle

Betty Montgomery: Butterfly weed adds the right texture, color in the garden

Butterfly weed is a colorful, long-lived, drought tolerant perennial that thrives across much of the U.S. [Photo by Betty Montgomery]
By Betty Montgomery
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Posted: Jul. 31, 2019 12:01 am

Wildflowers have had a special place in my heart since my childhood days. There was a field between our house and the church that I loved to walk through, especially in the spring. It brings back wonderful memories as I think about that field now. On my way home, I would pick a few flowers to put in a vase on my bedside table. There were daisies, phlox, sweet William, bachelors button, butterfly weed, Queen Ann’s lace, coreopsis, and many others, depending, of course, when you were there.

One wildflower that I remember from my childhood and that I grow in the garden today is butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa). Butterfly weed is a colorful, long-lived, drought tolerant perennial that thrives across much of the US. As I drive around now, I see a glimpse of this bright orange and I know exactly what it is. It blooms along the roadside by ditches or at the edge of the woods. I have some growing wild on our property in an area of thick pine needles where, over time, the surface of the hard clay soil has been softened with the decaying of the pine needles. These bright orange flowers, sitting on top of erect stems, stand out quite vividly with the brown of the needles as a backdrop.

Butterfly weed got its name due to the many varieties of butterflies, especially Monarchs, it attracts. It is also known to entice hummingbirds that drink its nectar as well as other insects.

The bright flower clusters appear in midsummer and produce beautiful flowers for a month or more. As with all plants, the age and size of the plant will determine how many blooms you get from one plant and with older plants, the flower set will be more and often older plants will produce a second crop of flowers.

These wildflowers sprout from an underground tuber. The flowers give way to prominent, spindle-shaped seed pods (3 to 6 inches long), which split open and release numerous silky-tailed seeds for dispersal by the wind. If you pick the seed pods before they open, you can dry them and use the pods in flower arrangement. These fascinating shaped pods add interest to any arrangement.

Unlike many of the other milkweeds, this species does not have milky-sapped stems.

I have purchased these plants at a specialty nursery and have them planted in an area of the garden behind some hardy geraniums, showcasing wonderful contrasting colors of purple from the hardy geranium and the orange of the butterfly weed. These flowers work nicely since they only get to about 2 feet tall and the lance-shaped leaves make a nice contrast with the stems of the geraniums.

Butterfly weed requires very little effort to grow; a minimum of fuss and bother. Once they get established, they are hardy and will even take those dry spells that often come along in the summer months. The roots go deep and this helps take them through tough times. They are hardy and well adapted, surviving admirably with little gardening effort. After they get established, you do not have to worry about watering them plus no bugs to compete with. It thrives in USDA plant hardiness zones 3 to 9, and will take bright sunlight and poor, dry, sandy or gravelly soil with a slight acidic or neutral pH. When I planted mine, they did not bloom the first year, they bloomed a little the second year, and the third year, they were outstanding.

Butterfly weed makes a nice cut flower and will last a long time in a vase. I often use them when creating an arrangement using daylilies. The bright orange of the butterfly weed works nicely with yellow and orange daylilies, giving me just the right texture and adds a nice shape that complements the other flowers.

The Perennial Plant Association, naming it the Perennial Plant of The Year in 2017, honored this hardy wildflower. This special selection of the wildflower, orange butterfly weed, is unique in its ability to grow not only in heavier soils such as clay but in sandy soils too.

This is a fun plant to have and I hope I am always able to have some to enjoy in the garden, as well as in the house.

Betty Montgomery is a master gardener and author of “Hydrangeas: How To Grow, Cultivate & Enjoy,” and “A Four-Season Southern Garden.” She can be reached at bmontgomery40@gmail.com.

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