Learn about the different types of butterfly weed flowers if you want your garden filled with not just pretty and colorful flowerbeds but also fluttering butterflies and other whimsical creatures.
The butterfly weed flower, or Asclepias tuberose, is a species that serves both as a food source for monarch butterflies, and as a host plant for them to lay their eggs. When they hatch, the larvae eat the foliage that contains a milky substance, called cardiac glycoside, which is pretty much poison for any vertebrate. Since insects have exoskeletons instead, it does not bother them that much.
This very substance is where the genus derives its common name from: the ‘milkweed’ plant. The genus Asclepias contains herbaceous, flowering perennials that are usually entirely toxic for grazing animals.
These vibrant orange flowers can add a pleasant and worthwhile ornamental value to your garden or flowerbed, attracting all sorts of whimsical creatures with their color and nectar. If you want your garden to be populated with fluttering butterflies, these are the perfect flowers to plant.
Let’s consider some subtypes of the butterfly weed species and a few other milkweed plants that can add a touch of vitality to your backyard.
Source: US Forest Service
Tuberose is a perennial herb that consists of many straight, hairy stems. The leaves have simple shape and are arranged in an alternating pattern along the stem. Unlike other milkweed plants, the sap of the butterfly weed is watery and translucent.
The flowers are arranged in slightly rounded bunches, with each bunch made up of tiny individual florets, each complete with five petals pointing downwards and topped by a crown. The fruit contains numerous brown seeds that are full of tufty white down similar to the dandelion.
The roots are deep and woody, which makes the plant difficult to transplant well. Seed germination, however, is easily propagated once planted.
Usually, the butterfly weed flower is found growing in dry habitats like open fields, prairies, and grasslands in the Midwest and Great Plains. You will find the brilliant orange blossom blooming in every state from Maine to South Dakota to the southwestern Florida deserts.
Because of its unusual and striking looks, the butterfly weed flower is often preferred in formal garden borders or fancy gardens. The plant is easy to look after if its needs are met. It is hardy, dependable, and can easily survive small periods of drought.
Source: Chicago Botanical Garden
In Native American culture, the fibers harvested from the dried stems of the plant were transformed into ropes that were then used for weaving fabric. Some tribes used various parts of the plant in their diet. Later, in colonial America, the leaves were dried and brewed into tea that proved to be beneficial for chest infections or inflammation. This quality gave rise to the alternative name for the flower: the pleurisy root. Until 1936, the pleurisy root was listed in the American Pharmacopoeia as a medicinal plant.
Milkweeds and Butterflies
Nature has balanced all species in an intertwined network of mutual cooperation and sustainability. One great example is the relationship of the milkweed flowers with butterflies.
Three species of butterflies rely especially on milkweeds not only as a source of nectar, but also as a nest to lay their eggs and reproduce. Some studies suggest that the butterflies have developed the ability to weaponize the toxic compounds they consume during their larval stages and later use them against predators. Because the plant offers so much to butterflies, they visit often, carrying the pollen from these flowers to faraway lands and automatically increasing their population.
In 2015, evidence emerged that the milk sap monarch butterflies so depend on is rapidly decreasing due to herbicide resistant crop plantation. Many gardeners in the US took matters into their own hands and planted milkweed flowers in their gardens only to realize that they were planting the wrong species, thereby endangering the monarch butterfly population even further.
Subspecies of Butterfly Weed Flowers
There are three subspecies of butterfly weed flowers with very minor differences depending on their geographical location and separate subsequent evolution and adaptation to the environment.
1. Subsp. Rolfsii
This supspecies is also known as Rolf’s milkweed. It is typically found in southeastern United States. It is a dicot perennial herb that is either vulnerable or endangered in the states and cities is it found in, such as New Hampshire, Vermont, Maine, and New York.
Source: USDA Conservation
2. Subsp. Interior
Found mainly in Central United States, Ontario and Quebec, the flowers of this subspecies lean slightly towards yellow rather than bright orange.
3. Subsp. Tuberosa
In Eastern United States, you will come across this subspecies. It is the most abundant out of all the subspecies and it also goes by the names Canada root, chigger flower, tuber root, the yellow milkweed etc.
Source: Missouri Botanical Garden
Planting and Nurturing Butterfly Weed Flowers
Since butterfly weed is a native plant, it has the ability to survive in less-than-ideal weather and land conditions. Whether they find themselves planted in clay soil or dry and rocky soil, the butterfly weed plants will flourish; they can even take on small periods of droughts. It usually needs full sun exposure but if it is not available, they can withstand shade too.
The roots are woody and deep; this is why butterfly weeds hate being disturbed once planted. The best way to plant a butterfly weed plant is to sow a seed directly in the soil and wait for it to germinate. Fall is the ideal time to plant the seeds so the herb has plenty of opportunity to bloom in spring. Alternatively, it can also be sown indoors during winters after a period of cold stratification- but again, disrupting the roots is probably not a good idea.
Source: The Spruce
Some Other Types of Milkweed Flowers
If you are looking to plant some milkweed flowers in your garden with the intention of saving the declining monarch butterfly population, you have to make sure it is the right kind. While most milkweed species are valuable for our beautiful fluttering friends, others can prove to be downright toxic. Have a look at these types of milkweed flowers that you can easily grow and nurture.
Asclepias curassavica is the most commonly found and naturally occurring species in the US. This is a lucky as tropical milkweed provides ample opportunity for butterflies to nest, feed, and reproduce.
The inflorescence is yellow and orange colored and highly attractive to butterflies. In fact, the tropical milkweed is a primary host plant for two different butterfly species: the monarch and the queen butterfly (the swallowtail may pay occasional visits).
Prefers full sun but can handle a little shade. It grows up to 4 feet tall in moist but well-drained soil. It will remain evergreen through winter, encouraging butterfly populations to thrive. Start them indoors 4-6 weeks before the last frost. Once the winter is over, you can plant them outside at a distance of 18-24 inches.
Source: Monarch Butterfly Garden
The swamp milkweed is native to Missouri and easily grown in medium to wet soil if there is full sun. Even though the species naturally occurs in swamps and wet ditches as the name suggests, it is surprisingly tolerant of the average soil. Once established, the plant is best left to its own devices. The foliage emerges quite late in spring, so don’t worry if your milkweed is not flowering!
It is an erect plant that forms clumps and typically grows up to a maximum of 5 inches tall. The stem branches at the top and yields small, fragrant, light pink flowers with five petals each. In rare cases, the flowers appear in white clusters.
The leaves are lance-shaped, tapered, and release the milky sap that milkweeds are notorious for. These flowers serve as lunch for several beautiful butterflies and their little ones in their larval stages.
Source: Missouri Botanical Garden
The flower of the purple milkweed is a rich red-purple color compared to the soft pink of the swamp milkweed. There are two different species of milkweed that have the common name of “Purple Milkweed”; Asclepias purpurascens and Asclepias cordifolia. Asclepias cordifolia also has the common name of Heart-leaf milkweed. Heart-leaf milkweed is native to California, Nevada, and Oregon while Asclepias purpurascens is native to central and eastern US and Eastern Canada.
Source: Prairie Moon Nursery
Swan or Balloon Plant
Known by many colorful names such as the swan plant, Balloon plant, Oscar, Family Jewels, Hairy Balls and Giant Swan Milkweed, this extraordinarily tall perennial features round seed pods that make it distinct. The flowers are not as beautiful as sister species, but the round pods could turn out to be an interesting conversation topic! They can even be used as exotic baubles for flower arrangements.
This milkweed is actually native to South Africa but has reached the US through pollination and cultivars. If you would like to have it in your garden, the best time to plant seeds is late fall. Make sure to remember that the plant can reach up to 6 feet in height and place it accordingly.
Source: Joyful Butterfly
The Common Milkweed
This species is native to North America and, like others of its kind, quite attractive to butterflies. The plant is a good choice if you have space outside your house or in your garden, since the roots of the plant are weedy and quickly overtake other roots.
Planting the flower is not as difficult as trying to limit its growth. If you are looking for ornamental flowers, the common milkweed is not for you.
Source: American Meadows
Found in the western US states right up to Canada, the showy milkweed plant is the western version of common milkweed. It is a hardy plant that spreads underground just like its sister species. It can easily become invasive and problematic in the garden. Because of the unrelenting roots, it is nearly impossible to grow the plant in jars or pots.
Showy milkweed is called so because of its beautiful inflorescence that blooms quite early in spring. The flowers have a heady fragrance and they look quite picturesque set against silvery-green foliage.
Asclepias speciosa has the ability to survive even in dry conditions and poor soil if ample sun and plenty of room to grow is provided.
Planting butterfly weed flowers is not only an aesthetic pleasure for you and your guests enjoy when you take a stroll in your garden; it is also a favor to the butterflies that need these plants to nest and lay their eggs. The caterpillar larvae need the milk sap, and grown butterflies drink up the nectar. In return, these fluttering insects promote the flower population by taking their pollen from place to place.
If you would love to have some butterfly friends over for dinner, get some butterfly weed seeds from a nursery and get planting!