Asclepias tuberosa, also known as butterfly milkweed, pleurisy root or chigger weed, is a North American native perennial that gives a bright splash of color to roadsides, fallow fields and even your own garden. It loves sunny, well-drained areas and attracts many insects to its bright orange flowers that have an incredibly long bloom time, often sporting blossoms from early summer to autumn.
The genus Asclepias was named for Asclepius, the Greek god of healing. He is often depicted holding a rod or staff with a snake coiled around it, which is a modern, familiar sign of medicine. It has long been an important part of native American herbal treatments and actually does have many properties that treat chest ailments.
Even though Asclepias tuberosa is part of the large milkweed family, it does not 'bleed' the familiar milky sap when cut or broken. This makes it an excellent choice for cut flower arrangements and the hairy stems are also out of character, as most milkweeds have smooth stems. The neon orange or yellow flowers are showy in the garden and they are like a homing beacon for butterflies, hummingbirds and bees. The plant is rich in nectar and pollen, so many gardeners consider it a must-have for their wildlife gardens and an added plus is that deer rarely browse it.
Gardeners that live in areas that restrict the types of plants they can landscape with, such as HOA's that prohibit non-natives, can happily use this tough and easy plant in their borders. If the spent blossoms are dead-headed, a full summer of continuous bloom is possible. Plant seeds where you want them to grow in the fall and they should emerge in late spring. You can also start the seeds under lights about six weeks before last frost for a head start on the season.
The butterfly milkweed or chigger weed...as my Mom calls it, (I was warned never to touch it as a child) has a long taproot that makes it difficult to transplant once it is established. It is easy to grow from seed and many nurseries and mail-order sources even offer plants. Free seeds are quite easy to harvest when the familiar milkweed pods ripen and start to split. Grab the seeds before the pod splits completely and the fluffy 'down' helps the seeds float away on the wind. This fluffy fiber was even used by the military for life preservers during World War II. They promoted a campaign where school kids collected the fluff and sent it to collection points. Modern day commercial uses for this down include comforters, jackets and pillows. However, it isn't a mainstream product by any means.
And then, there are the butterflies. All species of butterflies enjoy the nectar the flowers provide, but it is vital to the survival of the Monarch. The caterpillars of the Monarch depend on milkweed species for food. Female butterflies lay their eggs on specific host plants and milkweed is the host plant of choice for the Monarch. Even if you only have space for a few plants, plant a little milkweed and let the caterpillars munch. Honeybees like it too. When I snapped these images, it was the honeybees that were most evident and I was quite happy to see this...we have a good population of honeybees in our area, but anything I can do to encourage their survival makes it even better.
Asclepias tuberosa is a native plant that packs a huge punch, visually and environmentally. It is historically significant to the Native American culture and easy to grow. If you have a spare corner to your perennial bed, be sure to tuck some in, you won't be disappointed.