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Butterfly Milkweed

Butterfly Milkweed

Common Name: Butterfly Milkweed

Botanical Name: Asclepias tuberosa


NARRATOR: Horticulturalist Cody George discusses the presence of butterfly milkweed in the museum landscape, and the development of the Monarch Way Station at Crystal Bridges.

CODY GEORGE: During the initial planning process, we did install some butterfly milkweed. Of course, the milkweed is the host plant to the Monarch butterfly. After we noticed that the Monarchs were visiting, we decided to research their migration, and after this research found that the monarchs were declining, we decided to help out in the cause. What we did is we created a Monarch Way Station and this way station is certified through the organization Monarch Watch, and it is a bed that is specifically planted to help attract Monarch butterflies. We now have four different species of milkweed as well as different nectar plants. When it’s all said and done, we will have over 15 nectar plants and six species of milkweed so that the Monarchs will have a little oasis to not only rest on, but also to lay their eggs on, in their fall and their spring migration.


NARRATOR: This bright orange milkweed plant is an important food source for certain birds and animals, and has a number of uses by humans as well, as described by ethnobotanist Justin Nolan.

JUSTIN NOLAN: Butterfly Milkweed, also known as Asclepias tuberosa, is a gorgeous native with many names. Some know the plant as Pleurisy Root, others call it Indian Paintbrush. However called, Butterfly Root is a member of the Apocynaceae family, a large taxon representing over 5,000 flowers, shrubs, trees, and vines. Representatives of this family are succulent, often producing distinct and milky latex, which in turn was dried and chewed as gum. Butterfly Weed is a favorite among naturalists, gardeners, and horticulturists for its visual appeal, and also for its abundant nectar production. The nectar attracts Monarch butterflies, and others. It nourishes hummingbirds, and an array of insects and larvae especially.

Perceptually obvious by its bright vivid orange clusters, Butterfly Milkweed attracted human attention and recognition historically, as is the case still today. To illustrate, the roots of butterfly weed are known and used traditionally by Native Americans to combat pleurisy, for lung inflammation, for intestinal pains, and cramping. Daniel Mormon’s works covered these uses extensively. Butterfly Weed was also dried and prepared into a heart tonic, an antitussive, a pulmonary aid, and an expectorant, for example, by the Cherokee Indians. Butterfly Weed can be seen to symbolize vitality, health, and resilience in the American garden.

Butterfly Milkweed

Plant family: Asclepidaceae

Location: Art Trail, East Terrace Switchback

Growing zone: 3-9

Height: 1-3 ft.

Spread: 1-3 ft.

Bloom time: June, July

Bloom description: Bright orange blooms are organized onto large clusters. Colors can vary from yellow to red-orange. The arrangement of the hood-shaped petals and prominent horn in the center of the bloom function as a means to trap pollinating visitors. As a visitor struggles with the flower, the pollen sacs stick to its appendages and pollination has begun.

Leaf type: The narrow leaves are dark green and arranged alternately up the stem.

Garden uses: This native perennial is best used in a border or wildlife garden. Do pay mind to the soil conditions, as Butterfly Weed has a tendency to rot in poorly-drained soil. Sandy, well-drained soil with full sun is ideal.

Wildlife benefits: Best known as the host plant for the Monarch butterfly. Recent efforts to eradicate milkweed from large- and small-scale farms in the upper Midwest, as well as habitat destruction, has led to the significant decline in the Monarch butterfly population. This is a great plant to add into any sunny garden that also serves as a nectar source for many species of butterflies and moths.