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What Time is it in Nature: Butterflyweed

July 1, 2013

Summer is here and there are dozens of plant species blooming at Prairie Ridge!  One of the showiest is Butterflyweed (Asclepias tuberosa), a native plant found in the Nature Neighborhood Garden, at the Prairie Ridge entrance, and in various other locations on the grounds.


Butterflyweed is a popular garden plant in many parts of the Eastern United States, due in part to the deep green foliage and showy bunches of bright orange or yellow flowers.  The plants grow to 1-3 feet and bloom in the summer with masses of flowers that attract a variety of pollinators.  Butterflyweed is easy to grow from seeds, but it can take up to three years to become fully established and the deep taproots make it difficult to successfully transplant established plants to new areas.  One of the reasons why Butterflyweed is so popular as a garden plant is that it is able to survive in very dry soils and is drought resistant.  It also thrives in full sun.

Butterflyweed belongs to the milkweed family of plants, a group that has many interesting characteristics.  Most significantly, the milkweeds typically contain a thick, milky sap that carries toxins called cardiac glycosides. Butterflyweed is an unusual milkweed in that it contains a thin watery sap rather than the thick milky substance of most members of the family, but it too contains toxins. These toxins protect the plants from herbivores as they make many animals sick when ingested. However, several animals have adapted to the toxins and happily consume milkweeds.  For example, the Monarch and Queen Butterflies both rely on milkweed plants as larvae, eating the leaves as their primary source of food as they grow.  Many species that are able to feed on milkweed also store the cardiac glycoside toxins in their bodies to protect themselves from predators, using the chemicals for the same purposes as the plants.  Such species often display warning coloration on their bodies, various combinations of blacks, oranges, reds, yellows, and whites.

Butterflyweed is an important nectar source for several pollinators and other insects, including Honeybees, bumblebees, and Milkweed Bugs.  It has also been used as a medically important plant and source of fiber by humans for several centuries.  Various Native American tribes used the Butterflyweed to cure physical ailments ranging from troubled breathing to upset stomachs.  The plant was also used as a source of tough fibers that could be used to make ropes and cloth.

Butterflyweed is a gorgeous plant with spectacular flowers!  On your next trip to Prairie Ridge, look for it at the flower bed to the right of the entrance gate just beyond the kiosk.  Or head down to the Nature Neighborhood Garden and try to spot the bright orange clusters of flowers.  You can’t miss it!

What Time is it in Nature is a weekly feature highlighting the current plants, animals, and other wildlife at the Musuem’s public outdoor facility, Prairie Ridge Ecostation. Find out more about the natural happenings at Prairie Ridge at our What Time is it in Nature Archive!

(Photos by Chris Goforth)

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