Butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa)
Why do I like butterfly weed so much? Probably because it is the color of summer and one of my favorite colors. Now I realize where my son got his penchant for orange tee shirts. There's just something about orange.
Please indulge me while I remember a box of 64 Crayola crayons, a madeleine that transports me to the summers of the 1950s and early 1960s. I would sit on the front or back porch with coloring books and a box of Crayolas. No one was happier. Today the butterfly weed evokes for me the Crayola spectrum of yellow orange, orange, orange yellow, and red orange.
A visit to Kingwood Center in the early 1990s was my first introduction to butterfly weed. What was that most stunning plant with the intense array of all the Crayola saturated orange hues? And it had seedpods like milkweed! I even surreptitiously gathered a few seeds, that eventually disappeared with all the other seeds I had great intentions of propagating over the years.
Only years later did I learn that it was Asclepias currasavica or bloodflower, a plant that does not do well in our climate. A South American native that grows well throughout Florida, it will not survive an Ohio winter. But I was hooked.
Then I discovered our native butterfly weed. While the colors are not as intense as those of the currasavica, they are an orange beacon in summer, to us and to the monarch butterflies.
A trip a few summers ago to the prairie next to the Salem cemetery in Crawford County sealed the deal. I finally understood the difference between what I saw at Kingwood and the native species that thrives in our climate. Warren Uxley had spotted this small remnant prairie along a railroad track because of the glowing orange presence of butterfly weed. Warren's enthusiasm for this plant is contagious, and he has been tirelessly working to restore the prairie to its former glory.
Just last summer there was a GMAS/Crawford County Parks trip to Resthaven Wildlife Area near Castalia, where we were greeted by a field of butterfly weed — the orange flowers blazing against a field of green, with the blue sky providing the perfect complementary backdrop. These plants were growing vigorously in the "worst of the worst" soil. The field was alive with butterflies.
This summer I saw the most beautiful butterfly weed of all. It was growing on the recreated sand dune of the Heritage Garden at the Governor's residence in Bexley, Ohio. It stopped me in my tracks. Its umbels radiated the deepest orange-red spectrum, and it was very popular with the bees. I was captivated by it and took many photographs of it.
By all means, try to see butterfly weed in some of its natural habitats.
My best advice would be that we all plant butterfly weed — lots of butterfly weed — in our gardens. And if we're lucky we might find the monarch caterpillars that use the plant as a host, or catch sight of the numerous butterflies, bees, and other insects that stop by.
Butterfly weed is a native plant in eastern North America. It is a member of the milkweed family, but the sap is less milky than in other milkweeds. Milkweeds tend to be poisonous to some degree due to the presence of cardiac glycosides. It is this compound that causes birds to avoid eating monarch caterpillars.
Some common names of Asclepius tuberosa (courtesy of Wikipedia) are butterfly weed, Canada root, chigger flower, chiggerflower, fluxroot, Indian paintbrush, Indian posy, orange milkweed, orange swallow-wort, pleurisy root, silky swallow-wort, tuber root, yellow milkweed, white-root, and windroot.
Native Americans appreciated and utilized many aspects of butterfly weed. They used the fiber for cloth, rope, and string.The plant was also put to use for its medicinal properties. The thick root was used to treat pleurisy, rheumatism, and skin injuries.
Milkweeds in general are recognized for their medicinal qualities. The scientific name is a reference to Asclepius, a physician in Greek mythology. In the late 19th century, U.S. physicians, taking their lead from the Native Americans, also found medicinal uses, mainly as an expectorant and to treat smallpox.
With such historic interest in the medicinal qualities, perhaps some day it will find its way into modern mainstream medicine. Indeed, some naturopaths recommend it for colds and the flu.
The popularity of butterfly weed is increasing, as we realize its importance to the monarch butterfly. It is both a host and nectar plant. The Delaware Indian name for the plant meant "where butterflies light."
It is a hardy plant that must have full sun and well-drained soil. It prefers a dry, sandy soil, but I have found that it does well in garden soil, too. It has a deep taproot, as do most prairie plants, that enables it to survive during dry spells.
I prefer to buy established plants or seedlings. When first planted they need to be watered well, but after that they will continue to thrive and could prove to be monarch caterpillar nurseries and butterfly luncheonettes in our gardens.
To read more about this fascinating plant that is native to eastern North America see The Secrets of Wildflowers - A Delightful Feast of Little-Known Facts, Folklore, and History by Jack Sanders. This book is quite informative and a pleasure to read. It is a must for any plant-lover’s bookshelf. It is one of the favorite books in my library.
Many thanks to Guy Denny for hosting our GMAS group on a tour of his tallgrass prairie. It’s a stunning showcase of the plant life that was once abundant throughout the midwest.