As gorgeous as it might be, there’s a reason why Asclepias tuberosa, or butterfly weed, is called a “weed.” After all, until very recently it was considered little more than that: a weed.
Now, thanks in part to the other part of its common name — butterfly — it’s an enormously popular plant in Minnesota gardens and nationwide, having been named Plant of the Year in 2017 by the Perennial Plant Association.
Butterfly weed is just one of more than a handful of once-shunned, now-treasured staples of landscapes throughout the Upper Midwest. Many still are saddled with “weed” in their common names, said Alan Branhagen, director of operations at the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum and author of “Native Plants of the Midwest: A Comprehensive Guide to the Best 500 Species for the Garden.”
“One that just cracked me up, I recently saw in a planter in Uptown,” Branhagen said. “It’s an annual in the North, and they call it Yankeeweed [proper name: Eupatorium compositifolium]. It comes into really distressed areas, so after the Civil War it was everywhere in the South, and they started calling it that. It’s popular for its really ferny foliage.”
While striking foliage and blooms helped many of these plants make the transition from ditches to gardens, other factors sometimes came into play. Butterfly weed skyrocketed in appeal after the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service petitioned to protect the monarch butterfly under the Endangered Species Act in 2014. Something known as a butterfly weed — and with good reason, as it’s a magnet for our fine fluttering friends — was suddenly a star.
This orange-blooming beauty is part of the milkweed family. “It’s a field weed,” Branhagen said. “And once everything became GMO, swamp milkweed became very popular for its sap, as well as being beautiful. It had to do with the collapse of the monarch population. Once the warning really went out, [plants such as this] really have turned things around.”
Another butterfly enticer, the towering Joe-Pye weed (Eutrochium fistulosum), also has become more prevalent.
“When I was younger, you never saw a Joe-Pye weed in a perennial border,” said Branhagen, who has almost 800 types of perennials in his home garden. “When its cultivar Gateway came out, that was the breakthrough, with its really robust flowers.”
Joe-Pye weed has become so popular that smaller hybrids such as Baby Joe and Phantom are showing up in patio planters.
Other popular ‘weeds’
Three more perennials with “weed” in their names have caught on locally to varying degrees:
• Sneezeweed (Helenium autumnale) is more commonly known as Helen’s flower, Branhagen noted, because “of course sneezeweed is not going to sell.” The name derives from Native Americans, he said, from a snuff they extracted from the plant — “so you could sneeze out the bad stuff inside you.” This late bloomer, which generally peaks around Labor Day, now comes in yellow and orange hybrids to augment the original red variety.
• Ironweed (Vernonia fasciculata), another erstwhile Southern favorite — the selection comes from the Ouachita Mountains in Arkansas and Oklahoma — is especially popular in Europe, Branhagen said. He likes the Iron Butterfly cultivar, which grows 2 feet high and wide and boasts late-season purple flowers. “It is iron-tough and does have nectar-rich flowers. I’m excited to see it cross over.”
• Fireweed (Chamaenerion angustifolium) is more common in northern Minnesota, partially because it “really comes up after a forest fire,” Branhagen said. He particularly admires its “beautiful magenta spires,” which bloom in mid- to late summer on 4-foot plants.
While these weed-monikered plants are the most obvious examples of the evolution/elevation to more exalted status, grasses and sedges fit the bill, as well. Branhagen attributes some of the grass transformation to “our aesthetic” and sedge progression to better selections.
Up-and-coming options include big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii), especially the Red October and Blackhawks hybrids; blue wild indigo (Baptisia australis), and the scarlet-palooza delight Royal Catchfly (Silene regia), he said.
All of these plants are worthy stand-alones, but also can be combined in a true prairie garden that would have been just plain “the prairie” not so long ago. Branhagen recommended thick plantings of cedar and/or oak sedges around Joe-Pye weed to deter spreading.
He called sedges “the hottest thing on the market right now. I see containers of sedge for $19.99. I would have had a heart attack if I’d have seen that 10 years ago.”
Bill Ward is a Minneapolis-based freelance writer.