There are over 100 species of Milkweed plants. On this page, we focus on three: Common Milkweed, Swamp Milkweed, and Butterfly Weed, because that is what we have cultivated . . . More information soon to come on Common milkweed ( Asclepias syriaca L.), and Swamp Milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) . . .
Butterfly Weed (Asclepsias tuberosa)
This type of Milkweed grows best in zones 3-9. It’s suited to dry to medium soils that are well-drained. It needs to be planted 15-18 inches apart in well-drained sand, loamy, or clay soil, with a pH level between 5.6-7.5. It grows about 1-1.5 feet t 3.5 feet tall and wide, growing thicker and producing more flowers every year. The plant needs full sun and blooms from June to August. Butterfly weed has adapted to dry conditions so over-watering can kill it. It also does not transplant well so leave it undisturbed after planting. The plant is prone to attracting aphids, so have ladybugs eat them or spray the plant with a strong stream of water. In order to propagate the plant, cut the tap root (the main core of the root) into 2 inch sections. Then plant each section vertically in moist soil. Butterfly weed is suitable for xeriscaping, which is a gardening technique that reduces the need for supplemental water from irrigation, because it is tolerant to droughts and erosion. The nectar that all Milkweed types produce attracts various types of butterflies and bees.
Milkweeds are part of the key for the survival of monarch butterflies since the caterpillars can only consume milkweed.
Culinary and Medicinal Uses
Butterfly weed would be used by early pioneers and Native Americans to treat diarrhea, asthma, and other respiratory problems. Another common name for it is pleurisy root because Native Americans would chew on the root to cure pleurisy and pulmonary illnesses. Today, milkweed has limited medicinal and culinary uses. (1) Common Milkweed had many, many uses by different First Nation was used as part of a contraceptive by the Meskwaki. (5).
Significance to Cultural Communities
Early settlers would make silk from Butterfly weed and braid it into candle wicks. Native Americans would boil the seed pods in water and then eat them like okra (1). Aztecs regarded milkweed as immortal because the plant regrows from its root, which is used in a variety of home remedies for chest congestion, still used today in Mexican culture (4). Because milkweed has strong connections with the monarch butterfly, it has come to be associated as an important symbol for immigrant communities, particularly from south America as the monarch butterfly migrates from Mexico to the United states making "pit stops" on milkweed along the way.
From the Community Voice
"The butterfly symbol was not my idea. Immigrant rights activists have seen the butterfly as a symbol of fluid and peaceful migration for generations. To me, the monarch butterfly represents the dignity and resilience of migrants, and the right that all living beings have to move freely. I believe that we shouldn’t allow our identity to be defined only by our suffering, nor by the actions that others have taken to devalue our families and our labor — rather, let us celebrate our beauty, pride, and resilience in the face of inequality and injustice."
-------Favianna Rodriguez (3)
"Mrs. Currie’s father first sparked his daughter’s interest in gardening at a very young age. He grew milkweed to show his family the monarch butterfly and their different stages of growth and transformation. Donna Currie recollected how fun it was to see the butterflies lay eggs under the leaves (to prevent birds from eating them) and watch the eggs hatch into tiny larvae, then eventually grow into caterpillars. Mrs. Currie continued this tradition in her garden and has consequently planted many flowers to attract butterflies. "
-------Donna Currie's Gardening Story, collected by Karl Novak
1. Butterfly Weed (Asclepias tuberosa). (n.d.). Retrieved September 25, 1993, from Texas Parks & Wildlife website:http://www.tpwd.state.tx.us/huntwild/wild/species/butterflyweed/
2. Asclepias tuberosa. (2013, September 9). Retrieved September 25, 1993, from Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center website: http://www.wildflower.org/plants/result.php?id_plant=ASTU
3. Rodriguez, Favianna. “Migration is Beautiful: Artist’s Statement on Immigration Reform.” http://migrationisbeautiful.com/
4. Davidow, Joie, Infusions of Healing: A Treasury of Mexican-American Herbal Remedies (New York, NY: Fireside, 1999).
5. “Common Milkweed.” Plant Guide. USDA NRCS (2019, February 14) <https://plants.usda.gov/plantguide/pdf/cs_assy.pdf>