Milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa)

Photograph by Samara Eisner

As Wisconsinites, most of us have our food thing: our irresistible, can’t-live-without-it thing. Whether it’s fresh squeaky cheese curds, beer brats, apple kringle, Friday fish fry, or locally crafted beer, most of us have one thing we’ll go the extra mile for. For the monarch butterfly, milkweed (Asclepias) is it. In fact, it’s the monarch caterpillar’s (larvae’s) one and only thing.

Perhaps one of the showiest milkweeds is Asclepias tuberosa because of its colorful, long-lasting blooms. As Wisconsin’s only orange-flowering Asclepias, it’s easy to identify. The two- to three-inch-wide orange flower clusters appear midsummer and sit atop two- to three-foot-tall plants.

The flower color is primarily orange, but ranges from orange yellow to red and will continue blooming until early fall. The flowers are followed by several slim, attractive pods bursting with silky parachutes ready to drift in the wind.

This rugged, drought-tolerant plant is easy to grow in soils ranging from dry and sandy to medium and well drained. As a sun-loving perennial, it dies back in winter and resprouts from underground tubers in late spring. Because of their large taproot (tuber), Aslecpias tuberosa are difficult to transplant. They’re best established as young plants or by seed.

Make Asclepias tuberosa your thing. Not only will you support monarch caterpillars, you’ll provide many other butterflies with a much-needed, irresistible nectar source. Whether planting them in massive quantities in garden beds or dotting them throughout a border, you can’t go wrong with milkweed, commonly referred to as butterfly weed, one of our showiest native wildflowers.

Samara Eisner is a horticulturist at Olbrich Botanical Gardens.

Olbrich Botanical Gardens
3330 Atwood Avenue
Madison, WI 53704