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What is Butterfly Milkweed?

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  • Written By: J.M. Densing
  • Edited By: R. Halprin
  • Last Modified Date: 19 November 2016
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Butterfly milkweed, scientific name Asclepias tuberosa, is a perennial wildflower that is a popular garden plant because it attracts butterflies. It has clusters of orange flowers and bright green foliage. It has been used for medicinal purposes by Native Americans and for fibers to make cords and ropes. It is found both in the wild and in cultivation throughout the United States. When grown in the garden, butterfly milkweed is a relatively low maintenance, hardy garden plant.

One of the primary reasons for the popularity of butterfly milkweed is that its nectar attracts a variety of butterfly species including Fritillaries and Swallowtails. The leaves also serve as the main food source for Monarch butterfly caterpillars. In addition to butterflies, the nectar of the flowers also attracts Ruby throated hummingbirds, bees, and other insects.

Butterfly milkweed is a tall wildflower, typically growing to a height of approximately 18 to 36 inches (45.7 to 91.4 cm). It features a sturdy stem with long, narrow, bright green lance shaped leaves that grow in an alternating pattern. Younger plants often have a single stem, while older ones branch out in many directions. The flowers of the butterfly milkweed grow in clusters that consist of multiple tiny, orange, star-shaped blossoms. After the flowers are spent, the plant produces brown fuzzy seed pods that contain numerous seeds that float through the air suspended by fluffy white fibers when released.

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In the past, the root of the butterfly milkweed was used by Native Americans for a variety of medicinal purposes. Some of its uses included the treatment of respiratory problems, swelling, diarrhea, blindness, rashes, and snakebite. Fibers from the stem are also used to make cords and ropes. The fibers are taken from dried stems in the fall and winter, and many are twisted together to make lengths of cord; sometimes they are mixed with other fibers such as hemp for strength. Most parts of the plant are poisonous if eaten in large quantities due to the presence of toxic substances called cardiac glycosides.

Butterfly milkweed is found throughout the United States in the wild; habitats include prairies, open forest areas, roadsides, fields, and meadows. It's also commonly grown in cultivation in butterfly gardens, flower beds, borders, and natural looking areas. Once established, it is a low maintenance plant that spreads easily. It should be planted in well drained soil in a location that gets plenty of sun and watered sparingly; natural rainfall often provides adequate water.

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