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Butterfly Weed
butterfly weed
Butterfly weed, photographed at Green Cay Nature Center in Boynton Beach. Other photos taken on Big Pine Key at the Key Deer National Wildlife Refuge.
butterfly weed  

It's well known that butterfly weed, Asclepias tuberosa, is one of a number of milkweeds that serve as host to the larvae of the monarch butterfly and other members of the genus, Danaus. More surprising is the extent to which it's been used in traditional medicine, especially by Native Americans.

In fact, one of its common names is pleurisy root because of its use as a treatment for inflammation of the lungs. But that only one of many medicinal uses for butterfly weed. More on that in a bit, but first some botantical basics.

Butterfly weed is widespread throughout most of the United States, with the exception of the Northwest. It's also found in eastern Canada and northeastern Mexico. In much of New England, however, it's on the rare side. It's believed to extirpated, or locally extinct, within Maine; New Hampshire lists it as endangered, for example.

It is a Florida native, but the Institute for Regional Conservation in Delray Beach considers it rare. Butterfly weed is more prevelant in the central and northern parts of the state.

Butterfly weed is an important food source for both monarch adults and larvae, or caterpillars. Monarchs and other butterflies sip nectar from the flowers, as they do many other flowers. But larvae are picky eaters for a very good reason. Adult females will lay their eggs only on butterfly weed and other members of the milkweed family. The reason: these plants are loaded with cardiac glycosides, a poisonous chemical. By eating the leaves of butterfly weed, monarch larvae and adults become poisonous themselves. Glycosides are also the reason why for the monarch's orange color.

butterfly weed in seed

It is a shrubby plant, a foot or two tall, and spreading about the same. The leaves are simple, oblong, between four and eight inches in length, arranged alternately along the stem and "complete" or smooth, along the edges. The flowers are orange or red and bloom all year in South Florida. The flowers give way to pods full of puffy seeds that are dispersed by the wind. Favorite habitats include prairies and open woods. It is grown by gardeners to attract butterflies but it will also attract hummingbirds.

As we said above butterfly weed was an important element in traditional medicine for many native American trives, including the Cherokee and the Navajo. Various parts of the plant were used as to relieve stomach, intestinal or breast pain, for diarrhea, pleurisy (inflammation of the lining of the lungs), heart problems, as a laxative, to treat rheumatism, the flu and dog bite, as a ceremonial lotion, as a gynecological aid and as a tonic. In Appalachia, westerners used butterfly weed to treat smallpox. Extracts and tinctures are still available on the internet. One thing to remember is that all parts of butterfly weed are poisonous, although a considerable quantity needs to be consumed for it to be fatal.

Other common names include butterfly milkweed. butterfly milkweed, orange milkweed, pleurisy root, chigger flower and Indian paintbrush. It is a member of Apocynaceae, the dog bane family. Th U.S. Department of Agriculture classifies it as a member of Asclepiadaceae, however.

Photographs by David Sedore
butterfly weed
  United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) distribution maps for butterfly weed.  
butterfly weed north america
Links for Butterfly Weed
Unless otherwise stated, all photographs are property of the publishers and may not be used without their express permission.