Content Detail

Butterfly weed, like other milkweeds, is a nectar source for many butterfly species. This is where it gets its common name. It is also a caterpillar and larva host for the monarch butterfly, which may blend in with the abundant clusters of vibrant orange flowers that cover the tops of these perennial plants in summer. Butterfly weed is native to prairies and glades in the Chicago area and the Midwest.

  • Family (English) Dogbane (formerly milkweed)
  • Family (botanic) Apocynaceae (formerly Asclepiadaceae)
  • Tree or plant type Perennial
  • Native locale Chicago area, Illinois, North America
  • Size range Medium plant (12-24 inches)
  • Light exposure Full sun (6 hrs direct light daily)
  • Hardiness zones Zone 2, Zone 3, Zone 4, Zone 5 (Northern Illinois), Zone 6 (City of Chicago), Zone 7, Zone 8, Zone 9
  • Soil preference Dry soil, Moist, well-drained soil
  • Tolerances Alkaline soil, Dry sites
  • Season of interest midsummer, late summer
  • Flower color and fragrance Orange, White
  • Shape or form Mounded
  • Growth rate Slow

Native geographic location and habitat:

C-Value: 7. Common to dry prairies and sandy soils.

Attracts birds & butterflies:

This plant is one of the hosts for the caterpillar of the monarch butterfly. It is also a good nectar source for many species of butterflies. 

Leaf or needle arrangement, size, shape, and texture:

Butterfly weed has simple, alternate leaves which are lance-shaped, 2 to 6 inches long and spiral up stiff stems.

Flower arrangement, shape, and size:

Orange umbels, consisting of many flowers, bloom for about six weeks in late summer. Makes a good cut flower, but requires singeing of the base to stop sap flow.

Fruit, cone, nut, and seed descriptions:

The seed pods (follicles) are up to 6 inches long and contain numerous seeds that have large tufts of white hair which helps with dispersal of seed by wind.

Plant care:

Butterfly weed is slow to emerge in the spring and takes a few years to get established. Wait to prune back old stems until late spring. There may be some difficulty transplanting these because of the taproot, but they will reseed freely. Butterfly weed is a great plant for naturalizing, butterfly gardens, and hot, sunny locations.

List of pests, diseases, and tolerances:

Crown rot can be a problem in wet sites. Tolerant of drought, rabbits, and deer.

Whorled Milkweed or Horsetail Milkweed (Asclepias verticillata): 

This native milkweed is 18 to 24 inches high and 12 to 18 inches wide. It has narrow, thread-like, sessile, whorled leaves and small, creamy white, hooded flowers in June through September.


Your support is vital to the Arboretum, where the power of trees makes a positive impact on people’s lives.

Make a gift