Butterfly Weed Seed Collecting

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Learn how to grow butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa), a low maintenance perennial that attracts butterflies and their larvae all season long. How to Plant Butterfly Weed Seeds. Sometimes called pleurisy root, butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa) is a perennial wildflower grown for its showy, reddish-orange flower clusters and textured, lanceolate leaves. It thrives throughout U.S. Department of Agriculture plant hardiness zones 4 to 10, where it is … Collect butterfly weed seeds from the garden is fun and easy. Follow these steps to learn how to harvest butterfly weed seeds for planting next year.

How to Grow and Care for Butterfly Weed

Colleen Vanderlinden is an organic gardening expert and author of the book “Edible Gardening for the Midwest.” She has grown fruits and vegetables for over 12 years and professionally written for 15-plus years. To help move the organic gardening movement forward, she started an organic gardening website, “In the Garden Online,” in 2003 and launched the Mouse & Trowel Awards in 2007 to recognize gardening bloggers.

Julie Thompson-Adolf is a master gardener and author. She has 13+ years of experience with year-round organic gardening; seed starting and saving; growing heirloom plants, perennials, and annuals; and sustainable and urban farming.

Emily Estep is a plant biologist and fact-checker focused on environmental sciences. She received a Bachelor of Arts in Journalism and a Master of Science in Plant Biology from Ohio University. Emily has been a proofreader and editor at a variety of online media outlets over the past decade.

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Butterfly weed is a must-have plant for gardeners looking to coax the namesake winged insects into the garden. This clump-forming perennial grows from tuberous roots to a height of one to two feet and is characterized by glossy-green, lance-shaped leaves and clusters of bright orange-to-yellow blooms that are rich with nectar and pollen.

A type of milkweed, butterfly weed is generally planted in late spring after the soil is warm. It is fairly slow to become established and may take as much as three years before it flowers. When it finally does flower, its clusters of bright orange-yellow flowers will display from late spring until late summer. Unlike other milkweeds, butterfly weed does not have caustic milky sap, but it does produce the characteristic seed pods that release silky-tailed seeds to disperse on the wind.

Butterfly weed is considered mildly toxic to humans and to animals. But because it has much lower levels of the toxic sap found in standard milkweed, butterfly weed is regarded as a safer plant in homes with children or pets.

Common Name Butterfly weed, butterfly milkweed, pleurisy root, orange milkweed
Botanical Name Asclepias tuberosa
Family Asclepiadaceae
Plant type Herbaceous perennial
Mature size 1–2 ft. tall, 12 to 18 in. wide
Sun exposure Full
Soil type Dry, well-drained
Soil pH Slightly acid to neutral (6.0 to 7.0)
Bloom time Summer
Flower color Orange, yellow
Hardiness zones 3–9 (USDA)
Native area North America (eastern and southeastern U.S.)
Toxicity Mildly toxic to animals and humans

Butterfly Weed Care

Beloved for its ability to attract a variety of helpful (and beautiful) insects to the garden, butterfly weed is an easy-to-nurture herbaceous perennial that can also be found growing as a native wildflower in a slew of untamed environments, such as meadows, prairies, and forest clearings.

Typically grown from seeds you sow directly in the garden, butterfly weed does not require much tending to in order to thrive, prospering well in sandy, dry, rocky soil, and even in drought-like conditions.

Its seed pods will turn brown towards the end of the growing season (early autumn) and if left on the plant, they will burst and spread seeds throughout your garden to emerge as new volunteer plants the following spring. While the plant can take up to three years to fully mature and produce flowers, its blooms will gradually grow denser with each season that passes.

Warning

Like other types of milkweed, butterfly weed produces large seed pods that disperse small seeds with hairs that disperse on the wind. Thus, it can be an invasive plant that spreads every which way unless you break off the seed pods before they mature and split. Be careful when using this plant in gardens near wild prairie or meadow areas, as spreading is likely.

Light

If possible, choose a spot in your garden that boasts lots of bright sunlight daily, as this plant loves to soak up the rays. Full sun is definitely your best bet.

Butterfly weed can prosper in a variety of soil conditions and compositions, from sand to gravel, and it generally prefers a neutral to slightly acidic pH.

Water

During its first year of life (or until new plants start showing mature growth), you should maintain a moist soil environment for butterfly weed, giving it about one inch of water per week through combined rainfall and irrigation.

Once the plant appears to be well-established, you can cut back to watering it only occasionally, as it now prefers dry soil. An extensive, deep taproot helps it thrive even in dry conditions. Mature plants can do well with just monthly watering in all but the driest climates.

Temperature and Humidity

Butterfly weed thrives in a variety of different temperature and humidity settings, growing well in zones 3 to 9. Generally, the plant emerges in late spring, hitting its peak bloom during the warmer summer months and drying on the stem throughout the autumn and winter. It handles high-humidity and arid climates equally well, provided it gets adequate soil moisture.

Fertilizer

Butterfly weed is a low-maintenance plant that does not require any additional fertilization. In fact, doing so can harm the plant, making it excessively leggy and reducing blooms.

Types of Butterfly Weed

There are a number of named cultivars of this plant. Most varieties, as well as the native species, are orange. But some popular varieties offer color variations:

  • ‘Hello Yellow’ is a variety with bright yellow flowers.
  • ‘Gay Butterflies’ has decidedly reddish flowers.
  • ‘Western Gold Mix’ has golden-orange flowers and is bred especially for the alkaline soils of the western U.S.

Pruning Butterfly Weed

Though butterfly weed does not need much pruning throughout the year, it can be cut back to the ground ahead of the winter season. In late autumn, you’ll notice the leaves on the butterfly weed are beginning to yellow and the stems are drying out and turning brown. This is a sign that the plant is entering dormancy for the season. At this point, you can take a clean set of pruning shears and cut the plant to the ground, where it will stay until it reemerges in spring.

How to Grow Butterfly Weed From Seed

Typically, the easiest and most successful way to add butterfly weed to your garden is to grow it from seed. Plant fresh seeds in fall for growth the following spring, or allow any established butterfly weeds already in your garden to do the work for you.

Beginning in late summer or early fall, the plants should start to develop seed pods at the base of the pollinated blooms. If left on the stem, the pods will eventually burst and the seeds inside will be blown throughout your garden, allowing them to establish themselves in the soil in time for the following year. If you’d rather have more control over the eventual location of any new butterfly weed plants, you can remove the seed pods from the plant before they burst open and simply plant new seeds by hand instead.

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If you want to start seed indoors, the seeds need cold stratification. Place seeds in moist seed starting mix in a container, then cover with a lid and leave in the refrigerator for two months. Remove from the refrigerator eight weeks before last expected frost, and place in a warm spot under grow lights. Do not let seeds dry out.

Once the seedlings have two sets of true leaves, pot them up in potting soil, and continue to grow inside. As temperatures warm outside and all danger of frost has passed, harden off seedlings for a week, then transplant in the garden.

Overwintering

Overwintering butterfly weed is a simple matter of cutting off the plant stem near ground level as soon as the plant succumbs to cold temperatures in the fall or early winter. There is no harm to leaving the plant stalks in place, though this encourages rampant self-seeding, which is usually not desired. Don’t mulch over the root crowns, as this can encourage rot.

Common Pests and Plant Diseases

In most circumstances, butterfly weed is largely trouble-free, but it can be susceptible to root rot if it is planted in dense soil that gets too much moisture. It can also be susceptible to fungal diseases such as rust and other leaf spots, though these are usually merely cosmetic and not fatal.

The plant can be susceptible to aphid damage, which usually is controlled by lady beetles and other predator insects. The plant serves as a host plant to many butterflies, including monarchs, so expect the leaves to be eaten. Do not use pesticides on milkweed.

How to Get Butterfly Weed to Bloom

In general, butterfly weed is not a difficult plant to cultivate and should bloom freely on its own once it has reached maturity (which can take up to three years). That being said, if you’re struggling to get your butterfly weed to bloom, there could be a few factors at play.

It’s important to get your watering cadence right for the plant. It should be watered regularly until new growth starts to appear (this includes leaves and stems, not just blooms), at which point you can decrease the frequency with which you water. Additionally, butterfly weed plants should not be fertilized. While fertilizer may work to make other plants bloom, it can actually harm butterfly weed and discourage blooming. If the plant is not receiving adequate sunlight, it may not bloom, Consider moving it to a new location.

Common Problems With Butterfly Weed

Other than the root rot that can appear in dense, wet soils, there are only a couple of common problems with butterfly weed.

Self-Seeding

The most common issue with butterfly weed is the rampant self-seeding that happens if the seed pods aren’t removed before they burst and scatter their seeds. This can be prevented by removing the seed pods before they dry and burst open. The volunteer plants that appear due to self-seeding should be removed before they establish long tap roots.

Rabbit Damage

Butterfly weed is very attractive to feeding rabbits. Rodent repellant granules or sprays can provide some prevention, but metal fencing around the plants is the best solution.

These are very similar plants and members of the same plant genus. Both are of great value to butterflies and other pollinators. But butterfly weed has notable orange flowers, while milkweed has white or pink/mauve flowers. Further, milkweed is notably toxic, with the potential for fatality if large quantities are consumed by humans or animals. Butterfly weed, on the other hand, has rather mild toxicity, and fatalities are very rare.

Butterfly weed is, of course, a mainstay of butterfly gardens, though it is not quite as attractive to monarch butterflies as is the common milkweed. It is also commonly used in meadow gardens or any landscape design devoted to natural wildflowers. In the mixed border, landscapers find that the bright orange color blends well with blues and purples, such as purple coneflower, Liatris, or globe thistle. It also works well when blended with other yellow and orange flowers, such as coreopsis or black-eyed Susan.

First grown in the prairies of the Midwestern United States, butterfly weed boasts a long medicinal history. Native Americans used to chew the roots as a remedy for pleurisy and other pulmonary issues, and it can also be brewed into tea for treating diarrhea and other stomach ailments. But due to its mild toxicity, butterfly weed should never be eaten uncooked.

How to Plant Butterfly Weed Seeds

Sometimes called pleurisy root, butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa) is a perennial wildflower grown for its showy, reddish-orange flower clusters and textured, lanceolate leaves. A member of the milkweed family, it thrives throughout U.S. Department of Agriculture plant hardiness zones 3 to 9, where it is frequently added to butterfly gardens and native plant landscaping.

Butterfly weed and milkweed seed pods may be harvested and planted to support Monarch butterfly caterpillars. Butterfly weed grows well from seeds, which must be harvested in late summer and either sown immediately in the garden, or started in spring after a lengthy chilling process. The seeds are viable and will germinate with little care, although they must be planted at the appropriate depth to ensure successful sprouting.

Gather the butterfly weed seeds in late summer or autumn, once the pods dry to a light, rosy-beige color, but before they split open. Put on rubber gloves before handling the pods to protect your hands from the mildly toxic sap.

Before you begin to harvest the butterfly weed pods, sterilize your cutting tools. Dip the blades into a full-strength household cleanser, such as Lysol or Pine-Sol. Repeat between cuts to prevent the spread of diseases.

Snip off the pod using pruning shears. Slice lengthwise along the edge using a utility knife. Pry open the seed pods. Scoop out the seeds and fluffy matter inside and place it in a bucket.

Leave the bucket outdoors for two or three days to let the fluff blow away. Stir the seeds occasionally to loosen more fluff. Do not worry if some of the fluff remains, since it won’t inhibit the germination process.

Place the butterfly weed seeds in a plastic bag filled with 1 cup of moistened perlite. Store the bag inside the refrigerator for three months. Mist the perlite with water every few days to keep it from drying out completely.

Prepare peat or other biodegradable pots before removing the butterfly weed seeds from the refrigerator. Fill 3-inch starter pots with a mixture of half seed-starting compost and half coarse sand. Moisten the mix and press it firm.

Make a 1/4-inch-deep planting hole in the center of compost mixture. Drop one butterfly weed seed in the planting hole. Cover it with a loose layer of compost. Mist the compost to settle it.

Arrange the starter pots on a propagation mat near a source of bright, indirect light such as near a partly shaded south-facing window. Set the temperature on the propagation mat to 86 F during the day. Turn it off at night.

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Water the butterfly weed seeds whenever the compost feels barely damp when pressed. Apply the water by the spoonful or use a spray bottle to keep from dislodging the seeds.

Watch for germination in two to three weeks. Turn off the propagation mat one week after the seeds sprout. Move the pots into a cold frame outdoors or against a south-facing wall with noonday shade.

Transplant the butterfly weed into a permanent bed in spring just after the last frost. If planting butterfly weed in clay soil, dig in 2 to 4 inches of compost to lighten the soil, or consider building raised beds to increase drainage.

Spread a 1-inch-thick layer of mulch around each plant. Water weekly to a 2-inch depth during their first summer, then cease supplemental irrigation.

How To Harvest Butterfly Weed Seeds

Butterfly weed seeds are one of the easiest types of seeds to collect from the garden. In this post, I will show how to harvest butterfly weed seeds from your garden step-by-step, and also show you how to store them for next year.

Butterfly weed is one of my favorite plants that I have growing in my garden. Not only does it add amazing color to the garden, the butterflies flock to it. Plus, it’s a host plant for everyone’s favorite monarch butterfly.

Collecting butterfly weed seeds is easy, and doesn’t take much effort – you just need to get the timing right.

So below I’ll show you how to tell when butterfly weed seeds are ready to harvest, how to gather them, and what to do with them after you’re done collecting them.

Butterfly weed flower growing in my garden

Table of Contents

Harvesting Butterfly Weed Seeds

Butterfly weed is also one of the easiest seeds to collect from the garden. After the flowers fade on the plant, butterfly weed gets these gorgeous seed pods.

If you want to collect butterfly weed seeds from your garden, allow the seed pods to dry on the plant.

Butterfly weed seed pods

When To Harvest Butterfly Weed Seeds

When the seeds are ready to be harvested, butterfly weed seed pods will turn brown and start to break open on their own.

The seeds have puffs of cotton attached to them, which allows them to fly in the wind and seed themselves all around the neighborhood.

So, make sure you collect the seeds as soon as the pods start to break open, or they may disappear on you.

Butterfly weed seeds ready to harvest

What Do Butterfly Weed Seeds Look Like

Butterfly weed seeds are flat, brown and shaped like a tear drop – and there are a ton of seeds in each seed pod.

Like I mentioned above, they are attached to white cotton, which can make the task of harvesting butterfly weed seeds a bit more tedious.

Butterfly weed seeds and chaff

How To Harvest Butterfly Weed Seeds Step-By-Step

Clip the seed pods off the plant and drop them into a container or bag. Don’t attempt to harvest butterfly weed seeds outside.

Otherwise every time the wind blows you’ll be chasing them down the street. Once you’ve collected the seed pods, bring them inside.

Collecting butterfly weed seed pods in a container

Like I said, it can be a bit tedious to harvest butterfly weed seeds, because of the fine fluffy stuff that’s attached to the seeds. So start by breaking open the seed pod.

Break open the seed pod to collect butterfly weed seeds

Then firmly grab the entire fuzzy clump and pull it out of the seed pod. Wait, don’t let go.

Gently pinch the seeds to tease them away from the fluffy stuff. It can be a messy job, so you might want to keep the vacuum on hand.

Collecting butterfly weed seeds can be messy

What To Do With Butterfly Weed Seeds After Harvesting

You can plant butterfly weeds seeds as soon as you harvest them, or you can store them for planting next year. Allow the seeds to dry out completely before storing them.

You can store your seeds in a plastic container (film canisters are the perfect size!), paper bag or seed envelope until spring.

I like to use a plastic shoe box to organize my seeds, or you can use a Seed Keeper.

Where To Find Butterfly Weed Seeds For Sale

It can be difficult to find butterfly weed seeds for sale, but many garden centers should carry them starting in mid-winter through early spring.

Otherwise you can always buy butterfly weed seeds online. Here are some great, quality seeds to get you started… Butterfly Weed Seeds.

If you want to learn how to grow your own seeds for your garden indoors, then my Starting Seeds Indoors eBook is perfect for you! It’s a quick-start guide that will have you growing your own seeds indoors in no time. Download your copy now!

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Share your tips for how to harvest butterfly weed seeds in the comments section below.

About Amy Andrychowicz

I live and garden in Minneapolis, MN (zone 4b). My green thumb comes from my parents, and I’ve been gardening most of my life. I’m a passionate gardener who loves growing everything from vegetables, herbs, and flowers to succulents, tropicals, and houseplants – you name, I’ve grown it! Read More.

Comments

I have a question. I was gifted with a bag of seed pods. They are still green. Can I leave them in the paper bag and will they dry out and be ready for planting? Sorry to be so dumb. I’m ;hoping they will dry out and I will be able to have wonderful butterfly bushes galore….to go along with my crocosmia plants.

Amy Andrychowicz says

If the pods are still green, then the butterfly weed seeds might not be viable. But it’s worth a try. If you have several of them, I would try cutting open a few of the green ones, removing the seeds, and letting those dry out. Then I would also try drying a few of the seed pods until they turn brown and brittle, then open them to collect the seeds. Good luck!

Steve Cochran says

I purchased Butterfly Weed seeds from the Seed Savers, and had them flower & produce seed pods their first year. Lookin forward to harvesting seeds and propagating this beautiful plant.

Amy Andrychowicz says

Wow, your butterfly weed plants flowered AND produced seed pods the first year after planting the seeds? That is amazing! Have fun collecting them for next year.

Thank you for the information on how to harvest butterfly weed seeds! Have a beautiful orange plant and want more!

Amy Andrychowicz says

You’re welcome! The seeds are very easy to collect (as long as you get to them before the wind does, LOL!). Enjoy!

Susan Sapp says

So I have cuttings from a butterfly weed perennial. I was hoping to be able to repurpose the flower or stem to plant in my garden at home. Am I out of luck? Will I have to buy the seeds to plant in the fall?

Amy Andrychowicz says

I have never tried rooting the cuttings myself, but I believe it is possible. Dust them with rooting hormone and stick them into soil. Keep the air humid, and the soil slightly moist. Otherwise, if you can get a butterfly weed seed pod from the same plant this fall, then you’ll have the seeds as a backup. Good luck!

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Barbara Murray says

I successfully planted a piece of orange butterfly weed last year. A small seedling, really just one small stem, grew from a seed that must have blown from my big plant. I have several of these small seedlings around my yard now, but never had any luck transplanting them. Last Fall I tried to transplant just for the heck of it, and finally a new plant came up this summer! It got quite a bit larger and bloomed beautifully, and I’m hoping it comes back next year.

If the milkweed bugs are now on my plants, does that mean the seeds I can see are no good?

Amy Andrychowicz says

Unfortunately milkweed bugs do feed on the seed pods and the seeds too. But if your butterfly weed seed pods and/or the seeds aren’t damaged, then they should be fine.

When do you plant the seeds in NE Ohio?

Amy Andrychowicz says

You can plant them either in the fall (directly in the garden) or early spring (either directly in the garden or indoors). They would also work with the winter sowing method, if you want to experiment with that.

Kyle R. Crocker says

I have a containerized butterfly plant that has done wonderfully this summer, and has many pods now. My worry . . . In northern Minnesota, frost is coming by later October. The pods are yet green and firm. I’d like to harvest ripened pods before I transplant the parent. This is a risk. Any advice?

P.S. I have already gathered Marsh Milkweed from the wild, nearly a month ago.

Amy Andrychowicz says

I would just leave the pods on your butterfly weed plant until they ripen. I don’t think transplanting it would make a difference. Also, butterfly weed plants are super hardy, so frost won’t hurt the plant or the seed pods.

I read somewhere that if you bring the seeds inside they need to be kept cold for an extended period of time to mimic winter conditions. So you know how cold or for how long?

Amy Andrychowicz says

I don’t think that butterfly weed seeds need cold stratification in order to germinate, but many other types of milkweed do. It certainly wouldn’t hurt to do it for your butterfly weed seeds though. You can just put them in a container the fridge for about a month, and that should do the trick.

Hi!
So first dry them out on a paper towel, then put them in fridge for a month, and then plant indoors in early spring?

Amy Andrychowicz says

Yep, that should work.

Dot Zimmerman says

How deep do you plant the seed? How many seed per area?

Amy Andrychowicz says

You don’t need to plant them very deep. The rule of thumb for planting seeds is to plant them twice as deep as the seed is wide. I would plant butterfly weed seeds maybe 1/4″ to 1/2″ deep. I would space them 2-3 inches apart, and then thin them so they are about 12-16″ apart once the seedlings start to mature. You can also just spread the seeds over the top of the dirt if you don’t want to be fussy about it. That’s the way Mother Nature does it.

Dot Zimmerman says

Patti Golliher says

Thank you for posting this information. I love attracting butterflys to my garden. I noticed the seed pods on my butterfly weed plant yesterday; I am excited to harvest the seeds so I can plant more plants next year.

Amy Andrychowicz says

Awesome! You’re welcome. Butterfly weed seeds are super easy to collect and grow. Have fun!

Susan CLARK says

Can the seeds be frozen to plant after I move to a new home?

Amy Andrychowicz says

Sure, but you don’t need to freeze your butterfly seeds to store them. It certainly wouldn’t hurt them though.

Amanda Hemmer says

Hello!
I just planted a monarch butterfly garden this spring and my butterfly weed turned out great! I noticed the seed pods and luckily found this website. The pods on one of the plants turned brown and I noticed one had started to crack open on the side. I assumed this meant it was ready for the seeds to be harvested. However, when I split open the pod what appeared to be the seed pods were white and there was no white fuzziness on the inside …. I’m worried I picked them too soon! Is there anything I can do to help them become healthy seeds?

Amanda Hemmer says

The seeds are white not seed pod, my bad!

Betty White says

It the seeds are white, why is the seeds shown on here, with the fluffy stuff, brown?

Amy Andrychowicz says

Butterfly weed seed are white first, and they turn brown as they mature. The white seeds are not mature enough to grow, so don’t harvest them until they turn brown.

Amy Andrychowicz says

Yes, unfortunately it does sound like you harvested your butterfly weed seeds too soon. It’s weird that the seed pods were brown and cracking open before the seeds were mature. Are there any other pods on the plant? If so, wait until the pods open up and the white cotton is starting to stick out before harvesting them. Otherwise, I think you’ll have to wait until next year. You could try planting the seeds you have and see if they’ll grow though, you never know.

Mike the Gardener says

Awesome post! I always love reading posts on how to harvest/save seeds from a variety of plants that grow. A big one around here is milkweed. Milkweed seeds themselves are very expensive, which is weird because it grows in abundance along roadways here in NJ.

Amy Andrychowicz says

Thanks Mike! Yes, that is weird. They get tons of seeds too, and grow like a weed.

Betty White says

I have the orange butterfly flowers (weed) but I have never seen any pods come on mine. They have stopped blooming but I have never seen any pods. (Ohio) I am going out and check now but just looked at them a few days ago and no pods. WOW what a surprise. There is several little ones on the one plant and one larger one on the other. I have another plant in another part of my yard and I will check them. So how long should I leave the pods on the plant? The larger one is yellow but the other ones that are real small, are green.

Amy Andrychowicz says

Woohoo, how exciting! It can take a few months for butterfly weed seed pods to mature. They will turn brown and split open once the seeds are ready to harvest.

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