Plant of the Week: Butterfly Milkweed

Photo by Friends of the High LineEven without its bright orange flowers, the butterfly milkweed is a beautiful plant.

The High Line’s planting design is inspired by the self-seeded landscape that grew up between rail tracks after the trains stopped running in the 1980s. Today, the High Line includes more than 300 species of perennials, grasses, shrubs, and trees – each chosen for their hardiness, adaptability, diversity, and seasonal variation in color and texture. Some of the species that originally grew on the High Line’s rail bed are reflected in the park landscape today.

This week we share one of our gardeners’ current favorites with you.

Butterfly milkweed, Asclepias tuberosa, is a wonderful perennial that provides beauty in the garden throughout all seasons, and is an important part of maintaining healthy biodiversity in the garden. Growing from one to two feet high, this native perennial is known for its bright orange flowers and the butterflies that they attract. It is common across all regions of the United States except the Northwest. This sun-loving plant can be found in open sunny areas such as grasslands, clearings, and roadsides, with its bright flowers stretching skyward. It prefers nutrient deficient, well-drained soils and is very drought tolerant.

The intricate flowers are stars of the garden in the summer, but the empty husks of the seed pods remain an integral part of the winter garden as well. These oblong golden-gray husks are dry and slightly twisted, warped from the process of drying out. The outsides are rough and gray, with a hint of gold when the light is right. The insides are soft white, reminiscent of the silky hairs that caught the wind and carried the seeds away. These pods crown the remnant skeleton of the stem, providing a subtle, textural beauty during the deep cold of winter. These structures remind us that to High Line planting designer Piet Oudolf, “the skeletons of the plants…are just as important as the flowers.” It is hard to believe that below, under the snow and frozen ground, the roots lay sleeping, waiting to burst forth when touched by the warmth of spring.

The strength of this plant is not only in its physical beauty, but also that it is an important food source for a variety of insects. This plant is a home to milkweed aphids, which in turn attract a multitude of beneficial garden predators including parasitoid wasps, ladybugs, lacewings, and insect-eating birds. It is a nectar source for a great variety of butterflies and a food source for the caterpillar of the magnificent monarch butterfly. Asclepias tuberosa is a unique plant worth taking the time to spot amongst the grasses and other perennials in the garden, even in the depths of winter!

You can find Asclepias tuberosa on the High Line between West 17th Street and West 19th Street, and between West 27th Street and West 30th Street.

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