Butterfly Weed is 2017 Perennial Plant of the Year

March 19, 2017 lawanda Magazine Columns

The Perennial Plant Association has chosen butterfly weed, Asclepias tuberosa, as its 2017 Perennial Plant of the Year.  You might wonder at the choice of a plant with “weed” in its name, but this beautiful plant is anything buy weedy.  It is a versatile plant that is at home in both formal landscapes and more casual prairie, meadow or rain gardens.

Bright orange flowers in umbels – umbrella-shaped clusters – are held atop stiff 2’-3’ stems making butterfly weed good for bouquets.  The unusual flowers are easy to recognize for their “five-up, five-down” arrangement.  Each tiny flower has five petals curving upward and five petals hanging downward.  Bloom time is late spring through mid-summer.  Dark green lance-shaped leaves spiral up the stems.  Clumps of butterfly weed produce up to 25 stems each and grow 1’-3’ wide.

Butterfly weed is in the milkweed family.  Like all milkweeds it is attractive to monarch butterflies.  The flowers provide nectar for butterflies and hummingbirds and attract bees, ants and other pollinators.  The leaves provide food for monarch caterpillars and those of other butterfly species.

Butterfly weed is native to most of North America.  It prospers in areas with full sun and well drained soils.  It is drought tolerant once established and doesn’t suffer from serious insect or disease problems.  Deer tend to leave butterfly weed alone although rabbits may eat them.

One pest that may be found on butterfly weed leaves is the bright yellow oleander aphid.  Small populations won’t do much damage, and larger numbers of them can be treated with insecticidal soap or sprayed off with a forceful stream from the hose.

Stems die back to the ground in winter, but it is best not to cut them back until the next spring.  Young plants should be mulched over winter to prevent frost heaving.  Be patient – butterfly weed is a slow starter each spring.  Deadheading – snipping off spent blooms – will prevent reseeding and encourage re-flowering later in summer.

Butterfly weed is stunning grown alone or in masses.   A flowerbed of intense bright colors can be created by combining butterfly weed with yellow coreopsis, purple coneflower, goldenrod, blazing star, black-eyed Susan, and grasses such as little bluestem or prairie dropseed.  To make the orange really stand out, surround butterfly weed with the cooler blue or purple flowers of morning glory, globe thistle, or speedwells.

Have you been wondering how a plant gets elected Perennial Plant of the Year?  Perennial Plant Association members vote each summer on the following year’s plant.  Each member is allowed to nominate two plants for consideration.  A committee reviews the nominated plants, which may number 400, and narrows the field to three or four perennials to be placed on the ballot.

Plant nominees must be  suitable for a wide range of climates, low-maintenance, relatively pest-free and disease resistant, have multiple seasons of ornamental interest, and be readily available at garden centers.  It looks as though the PPA members have chosen another winner this year!

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