Sunday, July 3, 2011

The One That Started It All

Butterfly weed – with a name like that, it is hard to decide if it is good or bad. One year, before I was interested in native plants, I saw this plant on the side of the road while driving. At 45+ miles per hour, it was mighty hard to see the details on the flower. All I knew was that it was bright orange and it seemed to have some “texture” to the flower. That texture turned out to be many small flowers. Asclepias tuberosa is the scientific name.

Asclepias tuberosa
Finally, I found one growing wild near my office on a path that went through a natural area. I could then see the flower up close and understand how it was put together. I examined it more and found that if I pulled a leaf off that it would ooze white sap. As beautiful as the flower was, I found the stem and leaves to be rather coarse up close. This didn’t seem to be a flower that one would want in a garden. Later I tried to dig one up and found that it had a big, knotty taproot; my efforts were not successful (and, luckily, I’m sure that the root that stayed behind in the ground got a chance to grow again!).

Here you can see the individual flower buds.

Milkweed tussock moth caterpillar

I am not sure how I finally figured out the plant’s name.  After I did, I researched it more and found that it is a host plant for the Monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus).  In growing it in my garden, I was surprised to find a couple of other bugs that depend on it: Milkweed bug (Oncopeltus fasciatus) and Milkweed tussock moth caterpillar (Euchaetes egle). 

There may even be others, but these three are ones that I have seen and identified on my milkweed plants.

This plant is a little hard to find in nurseries.  I have found others – the tropical milkweed, which is native to Mexico, used to be available as an annual at Pike’s (Asclepias curassavica); this one is very colorful and very popular with butterflies when it comes to laying their eggs!  Swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) is also found more regularly in nurseries.  The purchased swamp milkweeds have not done well for me – perhaps I sited them incorrectly.  My sister gave me a start a couple of years ago and that one is still alive but not exactly thriving.  I hope one year to see the pretty pink blooms.

I think that ornamental and beneficial milkweeds are getting more attention lately however.  There is a recent cultivar available now: Asclepias tuberosa ‘Hello Yellow’.  I hope the success of that plant will help to encourage growers to propagate it which in turn will allow more gardeners to use it.  Milkweed is a good example to use when explaining the concept of “host plants” to educate people about planting more than just nectar plants for butterflies.

Plus it’s pretty and very drought tolerant once established – just look to the roadsides to see what I mean!


  1. One of my favorites! Ours are just starting to flower, you can't beat that cheery orange flower.

  2. Here in Florida it seems all people know is the mexican variety. When I deliver a batch of tuberosa, incarnata or humistrata to the local native retail nursery people are amazed that these are natives and yes available but only on a limited basis. Four species in production, only 18 more to go. Visit me at Restless Natives Nursery on Facebook and see my tuberosa and other milkweed pics.

  3. Chris, I'm glad to hear that you are growing this and other species. I'm sure the demand must be increasing each year. I will certainly look for your pictures.

  4. Ellen, I just love the milkweed - and I believe you gave me the seeds from one. I collect them every year and have enjoyed seeing the tussock moth caterpillars and monarch butterly caterpillars on them over the years. For some reason, I don't have any milkweed at all this year! But I still have seeds saved from last year, so I'm going to see if I can't get them started. Thanks for this plant, and for a great article!

  5. I have some babies this year, Sylvia. I'll be happy to share some more with you.

  6. Hiya,
    I am getting interested in the association between plants and the insects that depend on them at some stage of their lives.
    My present attention is for the moth called Scarlet Tiger Moth (Callimorpha dominula, formerly Panaxia dominula) and the plant called Symphytum, Comfrey, also belonging to the Boraginaceae family.
    Once you start, you realize that there are so many cultivars within one group, all attracting different species of insect.
    I wonder if Milkweed would flourish in our UK climate. I would love to have butterflies as showy as your Monarch.
    I have an image of this moth HERE, in case you would care to look.

  7. Good morning! I am compiling that spreadsheet of native milkweeds and nectar plants and came across this post in a search. You may want to consider updating it to make it clear that we should NOT plant tropical (A. curassavica) or common milkweed (A. syriaca) here in Georgia? Just to be on the safe side, in case someone like me stumbles on this older post. :)