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Butterflies Love Desirable "Weeds"
By Norman Winter
Central Mississippi Research & Extension Center
Weeds by any other name often do smell as sweet. The name "weed" conjures up thoughts of nutgrass, Johnson grass, crabgrass and dandelions. Weeds we love to hate.
Butterfly weed and Joe Pye weed are at least two instances where taxonomists or botanists gave plants names that turn off gardeners, but butterflies (and many gardeners) love these two Mississippi natives.
Butterfly weed is known botanically as Asclepias tuberosa. It is treasured by butterflies for its nectar and as a larval source of food. This plant is in the milk weed family but does not produce the same milky sap as the other family members.
With bright orange flowers, this perennial is adapted to sandy soils but performs well in loamy, well-drained soils. While you may be tempted to dig one from the wild, be forewarned that they are difficult to transplant because the tuberous tap root breaks easily.
Luckily, many garden centers across the state have container-grown plants ready for our purchase.
In addition to asclepias tuberosa, there is a gorgeous species with red petals and yellow hoods known as asclepias curassavica. It is native to South America but has found itself at home in much of the South.
The asclepias lanceolata is also a showy perennial with orange-red flowers and at home in moist soils like ditches or marshy areas.
Once you start growing the butterfly weed, you will never want to be without them. At least six of our prettiest butterflies love them -- the eastern black swallowtail, tiger swallowtail, monarch, queen, great spangled fritillary and checkered white.
Butterfly weed produces flowers for months and is best when grouped together in a clump. They are always showy, never gaudy.
Joe Pye weed is the other so erroneously named a weed. This gorgeous perennial is known in older wildflower books as Eupatorium fistulosum. Sweet Joe Pye weed is identified as Eupatorium purpureum. The Sweet Joe Pye designation comes from a vanilla fragrance when it is bruised or slightly injured.
New reference books have eliminated E. fistulosum. Other Joe Pyes found in parts of the Southeast are E. dubium and E. maculatum. They are in the family with more prestigious flowers like chrysanthemums and daisies.
Legend has it that Joe Pye saw a Indian use one of the plants to cure a fever. However, it is not known to have any curative properties.
There are a couple of commercial producers of Joe Pye weed in Mississippi, but it is still practically impossible to find at garden centers.
Last year, I took a picture of one plant with 20 tiger swallowtails on it at one time. It was in the perennial border at Calloway's Garden in Pine Mountain Georgia. If they can grow it in their perennial garden, it is probably OK for us, too!
These are tall plants reaching from 5 to 7 feet that can best be used at the back of the perennial border or as a divider like a wall. The rose- to pink-colored flowers are produced abundantly from July to September.
In one of my first horticulture classes, I was taught that a weed was any plant you did not want. Two that I do want are and the Joe Pye and butterfly weeds.