“Weeds are flowers too, once you get to know them.” – A.A. Milne
There’s something about the color orange that really appeals to my senses. Not nearly as aggressive as red, it nonetheless calls attention to itself in a cool, refreshing sort of way. So I was happy to hear that recently, an orange-flowering species received a perennial plant’s highest honor. In late November 2016, butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa) was named 2017 Perennial Plant of the Year.
The designation Perennial Plant of the Year is awarded each winter by the Perennial Plant Association to the plant that outshines its competitors not only in appearance, but also in its noteworthy characteristics. In order to be considered, the perennial must be able to grow in a wide range of climates, require little maintenance, have multiple seasons of interest and be relatively pest and disease free.
That can be a tall order for a medium-sized plant like butterfly weed, but its unique qualities enabled it to more than rise to the occasion.
A milkweed relative
Native to much of the continental United States as well as Ontario and Quebec, butterfly weed grows wild in a variety of climatic conditions including dry forests, along roadsides and especially prairies, where it is also known as prairie plant.
Butterfly weed in a northern Illinois prairie/Photo: Jason Patrick Ross
A member of the milkweed family, it tops out at about 1 to 2 feet. Since butterfly weed prefers average to dry soil, it is naturally drought-tolerant, which makes it an excellent choice for a water-starved garden.
Butterfly weed’s large, flat-topped clusters of flowers are a brilliant orange-yellow, a real blazing beacon among other subtler-toned plants. Happily blooming from June through August, they produce copious amounts of nectar that attracts hordes of butterflies, birds (in particular, hummingbirds) and a wide assortments of insects throughout the growing season.
Although at first they may appear uniform, butterfly weed’s flowers are actually composed of five petals that stand up and five petals that hang down. Called hoods, the petals that stand up enclose a single orange horn that when cross-pollinated, forms a follicle.
Later in the season, the follicle opens up along one side to disperse silky-tailed seeds.
Not to be outdone, butterfly weed’s foliage has its own attractions. Long and pointed, the 4″ leaves provide food for the larvae of native Monarch butterflies, while also lending a deep green backdrop to the brilliant flowers.
All in all, it’s like a shot of adrenaline for the garden.
Designing with butterfly weed
In order to flower, butterfly weed needs plenty of sun. Plant it in full sun in moderately dry soil. Almost any soil type will do (remember it likes prairies), as long as there’s plenty of good drainage. If soil stays too wet, the plant can rot at the crown.
For an eye-catching composition, pair butterfly weed with other strong hued perennials like liatris spicata, echinacea ‘Double Scoop Raspberry’ and hemerocallis ‘Stella D’Oro’.
Or let its orange flowers provide a splash of color among subtler tones like lemon-yellow hemerocallis ‘Happy Returns’, white phlox ‘David’ and apricot cosmos.
(By the way, butterfly weed makes excellent, long-lasting cut flowers.)
A word of caution: Left unattended, butterfly weed loves to spread. Deadhead it regularly to keep it from self-seeding. It’s best not to cut it back in the fall, but rather wait until early spring. The plant has a deep taproot, so it doesn’t like to be moved.
“Without butterflies, the world would soon have few flowers.” Trina Paulus