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What is a Butterfly Weed?

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  • Written By: C. Ausbrooks
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 28 September 2016
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Butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa) is an herbaceous perennial species of milkweed native to North America. It is often found growing along roadsides and in naturalized areas throughout the eastern United States. The plant is known by many other names including Canada root, chigger flower, fluxroot, windroot and Indian paintbrush. The name “butterfly weed” derives from the plant's attractiveness to butterflies, which flock to the colorful, nectar-filled flowers in spring.

Eventually growing up to 30 inches (76.2 centimeters) in height and 24 inches (60.96 centimeters) in width, slow-growing butterfly weed may take up to four years to reach its mature size. The plant's alternate, deep green leaves reach 2 to 6 inches (5.08 centimeters to 15.24 centimeters) in length, and typically lack any significant fall color. Unlike all other milkweeds, the plant's stems do not produce a milky sap when broken, and it is sometimes referred to as the “milkless” milkweed. The showiest of all milkweeds, butterfly weed produces vivid yellow, orange or red flowers that appear in the spring and summer. The blossoms appear in clusters of 20 or more, known as umbels.

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A long, fibrous taproot allows butterfly weed to resist drought better than other milkweeds, and it has adapted well to dry conditions. Once established, an individual plant may survive for decades, as long as conditions remain favorable for growth. The plant prefers dry, sandy or gravelly, well-drained soil and full sunlight. It can tolerate light shade if necessary, but may take even longer to reach its full size. Although easily propagated from seeds or cuttings, the weed does not transplant well because of its long taproot.

Like all milkweed species, butterfly weed contains cardiac glycosides, organic compounds that are extremely toxic to mammals and many insects. Boiling water renders most types of milkweed safe for consumption, but the leaves, stems and flowers of Asclepias tuberosa should not be consumed, even after boiling. Despite the toxicity of the plant's above-ground parts, Native Americans and many pioneer doctors found the taproot medicinally beneficial. They used teas and infusions made with the root to treat pulmonary conditions such as pleurisy, asthma and bronchitis. This is likely the origin of another of the plant's common names, pleurisy root.

Butterfly weed root was also used externally for medicinal purposes. Poultices made with the pulverized root were applied to skin ailments such as cuts and bruises, and to arthritic ailments. The Sioux Indians boiled the roots for food, and often served the plant's seed pods with buffalo meat. Other traditional uses include making dye from the flowers, often used by Native Americans to dye baskets, and making fiber and bowstrings from the plant's stalks.

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Drentel
Post 3

@Animandel is right that butterflies pollinate plants, but before we start trying to replace the bees it should be pointed out that butterflies could never accomplish what bees accomplish. Without the bees, most of our fruits and vegetables would never grow and we would be left with a food shortage beyond belief.

Butterflies may be prettier to look at, but the bees are the heavy lifters in the world of produce and flower pollination.

Animandel
Post 2

Butterfly bushes and butterfly weeds and any plant that attracts butterflies can be beneficial since butterflies do pollinate some plants. Most people just think of bees when talking about pollination because they are not aware that pollination can be carried out by butterflies.

Everyone should know that butterflies are more than just a couple of pretty wings, and unlike bees, they don't sting.

Feryll
Post 1

I know I am showing my ignorance here, but when my girlfriend told me she was going to plant a butterfly garden the concept didn't make sense to me. I can't say I have given butterflies much thought, so I assumed they were attracted to any flowers, so I didn't get the idea of a so called butterfly garden.

I'm not sure of the names of the flowers she planted, but they have worked. We have a yard full of butterflies and most of them hang around her butterfly garden. If you want to attract butterflies you should try planting specific plants because, without doubt, I can say the plants attract all types and colors of butterflies.

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