Dear Garden Problem Lady

July 2019


Is butterfly weed the same as butterfly bush? I’ve been reading about native plants, and apparently butterfly weed attracts lots of butterflies and also tolerates drought.

Your question is interesting because it exposes a mistake in gardening history. Both butterfly weed – Asclepias tuberosa — and butterfly bush – Buddleia – attract butterflies. However one actually harms butterflies.

Butterfly weed – Asclepias tuberosa, a member of the milkweed family – is a hardy, native perennial with magnificent bright orange flowers in clusters at the top of branching stems. The flowers produce quantities of nectar, and are the key host for baby butterflies – meaning that butterflies lay their eggs on Asclepias and the larvae hatch there into butterflies.

Butterfly bush, Buddleia davidii, is a shrub, much taller. Its flowers look like lilacs, long spikes, in purples, blues, pinks and white, adding color to the garden from summer to fall.

The important point here is that Buddleia flowers feed only adult butterflies. Without baby butterflies (eggs, larvae first) there can be no adults. With “butterfly” in its name, Buddleiea has ironically contributed to the drastic diminution of the butterfly population in North America. Botanist Doug Tallamy (University of Delaware) in his book Bringing Nature Home writes about what song birds and butterflies need to survive, and how we humans are unwittingly destroying the plants they need.


What is the difference, in a nutshell, between a native plant and a weed?

Weeds are plants we don’t want – no matter who they are or who their parents were. One man’s weed is another’s treasured wild flower, and vice versa. This is iffy terrain. Native plants were here before the White Man, and are part of the complex ecological web that supports insect, bird, fish and animal life. In general, native plant experts seem to distinguish between invasive plants that grow in the wild, which they call weeds, and non-invasive ones, which they call Native Plants. Of course, anything that has been hybridized – its genes monkeyed with by man to make its parts stronger or bigger or prettier — is not a native plant any more. So, in a nutshell, a native plant grows in the wild and is not invasive. And a weed is just something that somebody doesn’t want around – for any reason, good or bad. The God of the Garden — in this case, you, the Creator – gets to decide.


The next meeting of the Capitol Hill Garden Club occurs on the second Tuesday of September 2019 at 6:45 pm at the NE Public Library, corner of Maryland Ave. & 7th St. NE. Meetings start with refreshments, and are free and open to all. Membership and Program Topic details are at