KC Gardens

Plant of the week: Butterfly milkweed

Butterfly milkweed
Butterfly milkweed Submitted photo

Gardeners are always in search of the greatest plant ever; one that has beautiful color, is pest free and easy to grow. Gardeners many times overlook plant material that is right under our noses. We often search out the latest and greatest find from China or the plant breeders. Sometimes the best plant is right outside our backdoor.

This week in my Plant of the Week feature I would like to focus on one of those local plants that can be found growing in the ditches and pastures in Kansas and Missouri. This plant, butterfly milkweed or Asclepias tuberosa, currently is in its full summer beauty.

Butterfly milkweed is a native plant that is tough as nails in the garden. Since the plant is a native it is extremely drought-tolerant and will put up with poor soil conditions as long as they are well drained. It is a prairie plant so will do best in full sun. It will require little or no fertilization and no fussy soil prep.

People overlook this plant at the garden center as it is less than impressive in a pot. When grown at the garden center we often just see a few green shoots that appear not all that vigorous. That is because it is a native plant that prefers warm soil temperatures to start growing.

This plant does not really start to get growing until mid-May when the soil temperatures warm. Rarely if ever will you see this plant in bloom in a nursery container in the spring. But have faith. This plant will be a rock star in your garden.

Being a native plant, butterfly milkweed is a little slow to establish in the garden, taking a couple of seasons to reach its full potential. Also keep in mind, since it likes warm soils it is slow to wake up. It can be one of the last plants to emerge in the spring. Don’t give up. It will eventually come up, then quickly grow and set blooms.

Butterfly milkweed begins flowering in June, and the flowers will last a month of more. The best part is that this plant has the most vivid orange flowers. I know some of you don’t like bright orange in the garden but this plant is just plain cheery when in flower. It is a clumper in the garden reaching up to 2 feet tall and wide.

One downside to the plant is that it has a tap root system. That means it does not transplant easily. So when adding this plant to the garden select the right spot.

Need another bonus for why you should grow butterfly milkweed? Here’s one; because it is in the milkweed family it is a larval host plant for the Monarch butterfly. Adult Monarch butterflies will lay their eggs on this plant. Some gardeners enjoy this plant the most when it is being devoured by a herd of Monarch larvae. Unfortunately their feeding decreases the ornamental value of the plant but you feel so good helping this pollinator rear its young.

So if you have not invited butterfly milkweed into your garden I would say this is the time. Pots should still be available at garden centers and will be a good addition to the garden. Enjoy. I know my three clumps in my garden are putting a smile on my face.