The Plant Native

Butterfly Weed

Highlights

Butterfly Weed is a must for anyones native garden. First off, Butterfly Weed is a type of milkweed, which is the host plant for Monarch butterflies. Secondly, Butterfly Weed is Cheeto-colored bright orange—which is a very rare flower color! You can plant seeds in the spring and have flowers in the summer—easy for beginners. Finally, Butterfly Weed is one of the shortest species of milkweed, making it perfect for borders. Scroll on for more planting tips.

Full Sun – Part Sun
1-2′ tall
Flowers in the summer
Asclepias tuberosa
Butterfly Weed (in the foreground) + Blazing Star + Purple Coneflower = long-blooming pollinator heaven

Dig Deeper

Explore the history, types, and where to plant native Butterfly Weed

Table of Contents

Butterfly Weed is a type of milkweed

Butterfly Weed is one of the 100+ native species of milkweed, which is a flower native to North America and South America. These 100+ flowers are all within the Asclepias genus.

Monarchs only eat one thing: milkweed. Plants with this monogamous plant-animal relationship have a special name: host plant.  

Milkweed gives Monarchs superpowers

All milkweeds–including Butterfly Weed—are known for their milky-white sap, which is toxic to all creatures except the Monarch. Monarch butterflies have evolved to eat milkweed and safely hold the toxicity within their bodies. When a predator eats a Monarch caterpillar or butterfly they get sick (and sometimes die.)

Birds and other wildlife have evolved to see a Monarch and understand this is not something to eat. (It helps that Monarch caterpillars and butterflies have evolved to look so distinct.) Monarch caterpillars go ahead and chomp away, knowing milkweed protects them.

Looking to learn more? Head over to our overview on the powers of host plants, or check out our list of native host plants for butterflies.

All butterflies love Butterfly Weed—not just Monarchs!
It's hard to imagine someone encountering something so bright and calling it a 'weed'

Why is it called Butterfly Weed?

Butterfly Weed is this plant’s common name, or a name given by the generations before. Most common names come from the early European colonists who named what they found in North America.

As Uli Lorimer, head of the Native Plant Trust said on The Native Plant Podcast, this dismissive common name comes from a “colonist mindset” on non-crop plants. If it wasn’t edible and got in the way of farming, it was a ‘weed.’ 

Explore more in our collection, Beautiful Native Plants with Terrible Names, including Tickseed. And common names change! Let’s rename ‘milkweed’ to ‘Monarch Milkflower.’

Plant Butterfly Weed from seed

One amazing thing about Butterfly Weed is that seeds planted in the spring can flower later that summer. This is somewhat rare for native flowers planted from seed (most take the first summer to put down roots and flower the second year.)

800-mile tip for seeds and planting

A big tip for picking seeds is to try to buy or obtain seeds from places that are within 800 miles of where you live—the closer, the better. This ensures that the seeds you’re buying are suited for your area (Butterfly Weed seeds from Maine are probably not the best seeds for a garden in California.) 

Butterfly Weed seed sellers

Here are some online seed sellers (alongside their locations) that sell Butterfly Weed seeds:

Kids, Monarchs, and hummingbirds love Butterfly Weed

True story: 4-year-olds can plant Butterfly Weed from seed

As a testament to how easy native plants are to grow, I gave my four-year-old nephew a packet of Butterfly Weed seeds in April (I live in the Philadelphia area.) I showed him how to poke his finger into the dirt alongside our driveway and drop a seed in. Then I stood back and let him go to town. I figured it was a worthy $3 experiment.

Two months later: Butterfly Weed was blooming alongside the driveway. 

If a four-year-old can happily plant Butterfly Weed from seed, you can too.

Butterfly Weed's native range is massive. Map from USDA Plants Database.

Where is Butterfly Weed native?

Butterfly Weed has a HUGE native range that covers 70% of the United States and most of Canada. If you see your state here in green, Butterfly Weed is native in your area.

No pesticides or herbicides

Avoid using pesticides or herbicides near milkweed plants, as they can harm the monarch butterflies and caterpillars that rely on the plant.

Plant at least 5 plants (if you can)

The more Butterfly Weed plants you plant, the easier it will be for mom Monarchs to find and lay their eggs and for the larvae to have enough food and shelter to survive. In general, plant at least five individual plants in an area if you can.

What are good pairings for Butterfly Weed?

There are lots of other native plants that are great to pair with Butterfly Weed—including other milkweed species! Here are some great native flowers to plant alongside Butterfly Weed:

native-aster-flowers-with-a-butterfly-garden

Aster

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Bee Balm

black-eyed-susans-native-flower-garden

Black-Eyed Susan

blazing-star-with-butterflies-native-plant

Blazing Star

monarch-butterfly-on-a-common-milkweed-plant

Milkweed

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Nodding Onion

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Penstemon

rattlesnake-master-flowers

Rattlesnake Master

And that concludes our love letter to Butterfly Weed! This is a native flower that’s part of the milkweed family. Milkweeds like Butterfly Weed are crucial for helping Monarch populations survive because milkweeds are host plants for Monarchs. Butterfly Weed is so easy to plant from seed, and seeds planted in the spring will return flowers later in the summer. Their Cheeto-level of orange brightness is a favorite of hummingbirds, too. Plant 5+ and get your zoom lens ready for the wildlife pictures. Happy planting!

Looking to meet other native milkweeds? Head over to our Beginner’s Guide to Native Milkweed and meet a few more.

UPDATED —
03/30/2024
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