Saturday, July 27, 2013

June 2013 Plant of the Month Butterflyweed, Aslecpias tuberosa

Ever since I was a child, I was facsinated with Butterflyweed. I can recall riding on the schoolbus, just before Summer recess, and seeing it along the roadside. It stood out like a sore thumb with it's beautiful spashes of bright orange. It was this daily ride to school through this rural area that really got me interested in Wildlflowers. Back then we called it Wild Mustard. It wasn't until I got my first wildflower book at the supermarket checkout stand, still as a young girl, that I learned another name for it, Butterflyweed. From there I learned it goes by many names; another reason I like to use Latin when talking about plants. It is also called Pleurisy Root, as its rumored to have been a cure used by Native Americans for lung ailments and Railroad Annie as it often grows in sandy openings along rail lines. In these parts, Butterflyweed blooms in June, often right around the summer solstice. So I felt it was appropriate to make this the June Plant of the Month.

I have been growing this plant for 10 years now. My first ones I picked up at a nursery and I still have them. I have also saved seed from them as well as nearby wild populations I saw while walking. The seeds are easy to harvest as the are in pods. The trick is to get them before the pod breaks open for when this happens the seeds, attached to a fine silky fluff blow away. This is nature's way of carrying them to other areas which is probably why they are not seen in the wild in too dense of populations. To date I have about ten on them in different areas of the yard.

I often hear remarks about the difficulty of propagating from seed. I can say that this is one of the easier Milkweeds to grow this way, but conditions must be right. I have grown it successfully for many years in a row then last spring (2012) my whole tray failed to germinate. So something wasn't right, but I had no problem this year. As they say " if at first you don't succeed, try, try again," and I recommend another attempt. Be sure that the seeds receive a cold period. Planting them in the fall is the best way to ensure this. But if you can't, store then in a paper envelope in the refrigerator for at least 8-12 weeks. This gives them the artificial winter they need to break dormancy. Then sow them in a moist mix of peat and sand, maintaining a medium moisture level. Expect germination sometime in April.

Butterflyweed is a member of the genus Asclepias, also known as Milkweeds. The genus is the only group of plants that the Monarch butterfly larva can consume. Without it, Monarchs would cease to exist. The Monarch isn't the only insect that relies on Milkweed. There are Milkweed bugs, Milkweed Beatles and orange aphids. The aphids I have learned will show up every year around the first of August. They suck juices from the plant and as long as they are not over abundant, seem to not harm a plant that is healthy and robust. However they are unsightly and you may want to hose them off with a stream of water. Under no circumstances should you use pesticides, even organic ones. They will kill the Monarch caterpillers.

Butterflyweed is also loved by other butterflies as well as hummingbirds, bees and other pollinators, so it a desirable plant in wildlife gardens and an absolute must-have for a Monarch Waystation.

I have Swamp Milkweed in my bog, not far from where the Butterflyweed grows. Most years I find the caterpillers have hatched on the Swamp, then after consuming it, move over to the Butterflyweed and consume it. The leaves on both species promptly regenerate.

Culturally speaking, Butterflyweed prefers a dry sandy location with full sun to partial shade. It will not tolerate standing water or over-watering unlike its water loving cousin Swamp Milkweed. It also grows a long taproot, so keep this in mind when selecting a location for your plant as it resents disturbance one established. Find it a permanent spot from the begining. Fertilizers are not needed as this plant thrives in poor soils.

 In nature, Butterflyweed can be seen growing in community with Goat's Rue, Bird Foot Violets, Slender Goldenrod, Hyssop Leaved Boneset, Hairy Blazing Star, Stiff Leaved Aster, Maryland Golden Aster and Silverrod. In the garden, mine are planted alongside of Echinacea and Liatris which also draw pollinators.

Young plants may take up to three years to flower, although I was shocked one summer to find several of my first year plants blooming in August. But they are well worth the wait as they are extremely long-lived. My 10 year old plants are still going strong. I highly reccomend this plant for its easy care, beauty, wildlife benefit, and longevity so you can enjoy it for many years to come.