The other day I was teaching about Ornamental Grasses to a new group of Master Gardener's and some of the grasses I spoke about had been previously selected as the Perennial Plant of the Year. This of course got me to thinking that somehow I had failed to look into the 2017 Perennial Plant of the Year. How in the world did that happen?
I was thrilled to discover that the 2017 Perennial Plant of the Year is Asclepias tuberosa – Butterfly Weed. This native Illinois plant is a larval food source for Monarchs, Queen Butterfly, and the Milkweed Tussock Moth and it's also known as a butterfly magnet for attracting butterflies for the nectar it produces. It's also visited by various other pollinators including honeybees.
Butterfly Weed is an herbaceous perennial that reaches 1-2.5 feet tall and produces beautiful orange blooms in early to mid-summer and on occasion a second time in late summer to early autumn. The blooms make wonderful, long-lasting cut flowers. It's recommended to cut the stems when more than half the flowers are open. Once the flowers have been cut from the plant, buds do not easily open.
This plant prefers full sun and drier soil conditions – it won't do well or survive in overly wet soil conditions. It is drought tolerant and as a bonus Deer don't like it! Butterfly Weed does produce a tap root which makes it difficult to transplant once it's established and it's best to make sure to choose a permanent location at planting.
Consider mulching young plants over winter since they can sometimes heave up out of the ground, and the mulch will help to protect the plant. Also wait to cut back the foliage in the fall, wait until spring. Butterfly Weed can be slow to emerge in the spring so you'll want to give it a chance to wake up from its winter nap before wondering what happened to it over the winter months.
Other milkweeds contain a milky sap which can cause skin irritation, but this one contains very little of that sap. Butterfly Weed does get the traditional seed pods known as follicles, common with milkweeds, and when it splits open will release seeds with white silky fibers that helps the seeds to be carried along by wind.
When I was doing research on Butterfly Weed, I came across some interesting facts about milkweed. The seed fibers have been spun into yarn and woven into fabric and the fibers in the stems have been used to make string and rope. Research has actually found evidence of fibers from milkweed in prehistoric textiles in the Pueblo region. I always find it interesting to see how plants are used and this is definitely no exception!
Why don't you considering planting a Butterfly Weed in your garden this year and help to celebrate the 2017 Perennial Plant of the Year!