Late spring to early summer is a good time to incorporate perennials into the garden. As you contemplate plant selection, why not consider butterfly weed, named the 2017 Perennial Plant of the Year™ by the Perennial Plant Association. Butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa) is a well-behaved, easy-care plant native to Illinois. It is common in most regions of the state, except in some western areas. It also goes by the name of butterfly milkweed, but people tend to call it butterfly weed because it lacks the white sap of other milkweed species. Butterfly weed is different from the common shrub butterfly bush (Buddleia spp).
Though butterfly weed is commonly found in dry prairies, it adapts to other growing conditions. It prefers full sun and dry to semi-moist, acidic sandy soil, but it tolerates loam and clay soils if they are well drained. Butterfly weed ranges from 1 to 2-1/2 feet tall and spreads 2 feet wide; it displays unique long-lasting orange blooms from early to mid-summer, and it can bloom again in late summer to early fall. On occasion, though rarely, flowers may have hints of red and yellow. The blooms make excellent cut flowers. In the garden, butterfly weed pairs nicely with Liatris spicata, Echinacea sp., and Salvia sp. As the only Illinois milkweed species with orange blossoms, it is easily recognizable.
Butterfly weed will not spread as aggressively as many other milkweeds, but it does produce pods with seeds carried by the wind. To keep the plant contained and encourage repeat blooms later in the year, deadhead spent flowers.Like other milkweeds, butterfly weed is a host plant for the monarch butterfly caterpillar, an insect population that has been decreasing in recent years. In addition to the monarch butterfly, other butterflies, the ruby throated hummingbird, and many bees, wasps, and moths enjoy feeding on butterfly weed. Milkweed beetles and aphids can feed on it rather destructively, but deer tend to avoid it.
This native species should be on everyone's plant list. It benefits wildlife and has long-lasting beauty without much work. Be patient, as it will take a couple years for butterfly weed to look its best. As it tends to emerge late in the spring, do not cultivate too early in its planted location. Nurture young plants by not cutting them back in the fall, and add a layer of mulch until they become well established. You can add beauty to the landscape while supporting pollinators by planting butterfly weed this summer.