Butterfly milkweed wins award, good for pollinators

Purdue consumer horticulture expert Rosie Lerner recently reported that the Perennial Plant Association has named butterfly milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa), as its 2017 Perennial Plant of the Year.

“With much focus on pollinator habitat these days, butterfly milkweed is a terrific selection,” Lerner said. “Butterfly milkweed flowers play host to a wide range of butterflies, and milkweed foliage is the food source for monarch butterfly caterpillars.” She said that bees, wasps and other insects are also frequent visitors.

Butterfly milkweed is native to much of the continental U.S. and is hardy to U.S. Department of Agriculture plant hardiness zones 4-9. This species thrives best in full sun and well-drained soil and is drought tolerant. Plants reach about 2-3 feet tall with a similar spread. The bright orange/reddish-yellow flower clusters bloom throughout much of the summer. Elongated seed pods develop from the flowers and ripen to release numerous seeds with long silky hairs that aid seed dispersal. Lerner said pods should be cut back before they open to prevent unwanted self-seeding.

Lerner said the Perennial Plant Association (PPA) selects a different perennial plant each year to promote throughout the nursery and gardening industry. PPA members nominate plants based on several criteria, including low maintenance needs, adaptability to a wide range of climates, pest and disease resistance, wide availability, multiple seasons of interest and ease of propagation. A selection committee then narrows the field to three or four choices from which the members cast their votes. For more information on the Perennial of the Year program, see http://www.perennialplant.org/.

The choice of butterfly milkweed also falls in line with what gardeners and others have been doing recently to enhance habitat areas for monarch butterfly and other pollinators.

Gardeners throughout the Midwest have begun to plant butterfly gardens and similar plantings to enhance pollinator habitat. Farmers have learned about pollinator protection strategies in pesticide applicator training events. And, many commercial beekeepers are registered users of beecheck at FieldWatch, an online resource used by producers and applicators to communicate where apiaries and sensitive commercial specialty crops are located. Find more information at: driftwatch.org/.

Farmers who deal with milkweed as a contentious field weed should know that this is not the same plant as the more common enemy in crop fields: common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca L.).

Finally, Purdue Extension has recently produced a new series of publications that address pollinator concerns. Search for these and related publications at Purdue Extension’s “The Education Store,” mdc.itap.purdue.edu/. Use the search word, “pollinator.”

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