Out My Backdoor: The Butterfly Magnet

By Terry W. Johnson

If you are like me, you are constantly on the lookout for plants that add beauty to your landscape and benefit your wildlife neighbors. One such plant is the butterfly weed. I know what you are probably saying right about now: The last thing I need in my yard is another weed!

Please don’t prejudge this plant simply because it is unfortunately called a weed. I assure you this is not another Johnson grass or kudzu. If you give it a chance, it will be a cherished addition to your home landscape, attracting hummingbirds and serving as a veritable magnet to butterflies.

Butterfly weed (Terry W. Johnson)This native, perennial herb goes by a number of colorful names, including Indian posey, orange milkweed, butterfly love, pleurisy root and chiggerflower. While it is a milkweed, unlike other members of that family, when you snap the stem of a butterfly weed, a milky sap won’t ooze out.

Butterfly weed grows from 1 to 3 feet tall and lives in anonymity until it blooms from May to September. When the blossoms open, they seemingly shout for our attention. Its bright orange blossoms can be seen from afar. This hue is unlike any other color you will see in the wild. You can spot them along highway right-of-ways or far out in fields or open, grassy woodlands.

Because butterfly weed is so hardy, it brings color and beauty to some of the most abused and poor soils you can imagine. However, it grows best in well-drained rich sites. As you might expect, the plant is drought hardy and thrives in full sunlight.

European settlers learned of the medicinal properties of this long-lived native perennial from native Americans. These first human inhabitants of North America used the plant to treat a variety of ailments from snakebite to sore throats and lung problems. Although it is said that when consumed in excess, the sap is toxic to humans, this didn’t deter early settlers and folks who practice alternative medicine from using the plant to treat pleurisy and bronchitis, and as an expectorant and diuretic.

Legend has it that the warriors in some tribes rubbed the juice on their bodies in the belief it would give them extra strength to run and lift. It was also supposedly used in religious ceremonies.

Interestingly, the floss found on butterfly weed seeds has been used to stuff pillows and life jackets. The stem’s fibers have also been employed to make candle wicks, twine and cloth.

We aren’t the only ones that notice butterfly weed in full bloom. Ruby-throated hummingbirds feast on the plant’s sugary nectar. However, butterflies, bees and other nectar feeders seem to benefit more from the nectar than anything else.

When the eye-popping flowers are in bloom, butterflies seem to come from afar to dine on the plant’s energy-rich nectar. I recently saw a dozen or more pearl crescent butterflies nectaring on a single cluster of butterfly weed blooms. Noted naturalists Rose and Jerry Payne have told me they have spotted 20 or more pearl crescents vying for the nectar found in the small flowers displayed on a single flower head.

While a wide range of butterflies from variegated fritillaries and monarchs to pipevine swallowtails and gray hairstreaks are attracted to the blossoms, butterfly weed is the place to find the coral hairstreak. This uncommon flying jewel seems to have a special affinity to the plant. In fact, when looking for coral hairstreaks, if you don’t find any of butterfly weed, you are apt to not find the butterfly at all.

In addition, butterfly weed is a host plant for one of our favorite butterflies, the monarch. For that reason, it isn’t uncommon to find monarch caterpillars munching away on the leaves of a butterfly weed while adult butterflies feast on the plant’s nectar. Consequently, don’t be surprised if monarch caterpillars completely strip the leaves off young plants.

Fortunately for us, butterfly weed does well in backyard gardens. However, trying to get this plant started in your garden isn’t as easy as planting butterfly favorites like zinnias and cosmos. Establishing a healthy stand of butterfly weed requires patience and a little work.

Butterfly weed can be grown from both transplants and seeds. I do not recommend trying to dig up plants in the wild. They are notoriously difficult to transplant. The plant has a very long taproot that, if broken when the plants are taken from the wild, more often than not dooms the plant to an untimely death.

You have a better chance of success if you harvest a few 4- to 5-inch pods of seeds and plant them in your garden. If you take seedpods from the wild, never take more than 20 percent of them. This helps ensure that the plants have an opportunity to spread.

Seeds can also be purchased. If you plant seeds, sow them only 1/16 of an inch deep. Keep in mind that it takes them anywhere from one to three months to germinate.

The best way to get butterfly weed started in your garden is to buy small plants from a reputable dealer in native plants. Even then, any plants you set out probably won’t bloom until the following year.

One note of caution, butterfly weed takes its time to emerge from the ground in the spring. For that reason, it is a good idea to mark their location, so you don’t accidentally cultivate the area where they are rooted or mistakenly pull them up thinking they are invading weeds.

Here’s a tip: If you deadhead the blossoms, butterfly weed will produce a second crop of flowers. Indeed, the butterfly weed is a must for any Georgia garden. It is hardy, doesn’t require much care or water, is long-lived, attracts droves of butterflies and has heart-stopping beauty. I think you will have to agree this is one weed you definitely want growing outside your backdoor.

Terry W. Johnson is a former Nongame program manager with the Wildlife Resources Division, a backyard wildlife expert, and executive director of TERN, the friends group of the Nongame Conservation Section. (Permission is required to reprint this column. Contact rick.lavender@dnr.state.ga.us.) Learn more about TERN, The Environmental Resources Network, at http://tern.homestead.com.