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Gardening: Butterfly weed key to attracting monarchs

Nancy Szerlag
Special to The Detroit News

With all the buzz about bees, butterflies and other pollinators, it’s not surprising the Perennial Plant Association has chosen the popular American native flower Asclepia tuberosa, better known as the butterfly weed, as its plant of the year for 2017.

If you want monarch butterflies to flourish in your garden, members of the milkweed family are a must because they are a host plant and these winged beauties need them to live. In their larval stage, monarchs feed only on milkweed leaves. As adults, butterflies feed on nectar plants and these annuals and perennials, such as salvias, Verbena, bonariensis, zinnias and coneflowers, are found in many gardens.

Asclepia tuberosa, with its bright clusters of orange flowers perched atop a 2- to 3-foot plant, makes an excellent and easy-to-grow addition to almost any sunny garden, be it a wildflower meadow, a native planting or even a formal setting if carefully sited. It requires moderately moist fertile soil that drains well. Once established, it’s fairly drought tolerant.

Butterfly weed flowers in summer in my garden. Deadheading spent blooms may induce a second flush of flowers and will also prevent reseeding.

Most species of milkweed do not transplant well once established, as they form deep taproots that resent disturbance. When planting from containers, take care not to break up their roots. If dividing is needed, give it a go in spring just as the plants are breaking dormancy.

When growing from seed, sow them in small pots and be gentle when up-potting or planting in the garden. It’s best to give them a cold treatment to help the seed break dormancy. Before planting, for an hour or so I soak the seeds in a small dish of warm water to which I’ve added a drop of liquid kelp. Then I place the seeds on a dampened paper towel and insert it in a plastic sandwich bag and store in the refrigerator for a month or so. Mark the date on your calendar so you don’t forget they are there.

In the garden, Asclepias are late risers, so be sure to mark their locations. Cutting back in fall is not recommended.

There are many varieties of Asclepia found in Michigan nurseries you might like to try, but not all are hardy perennials, so be sure to read the tags.

Common milkweed (Asclepia syrica) is a weedy thug that can take over once established, so think twice before inviting it into your garden.

Nancy Szerlag is a master gardener and Metro Detroit freelance writer. Her column appears Fridays in Homestyle. To ask her question go to Yardener.com and click on Ask Nancy. You can also read her previous columns at detroitnews.com/Homestyle.