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Master gardening: Butterfly weed is a ‘must-have’

My first encounter with butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa) occurred while hiking through a meadow at Gifford Pinchot State Park in northern York County.

Mixed in with the native grasses were green, shrub-like plants, topped with brilliant, clustered, orange flowers. Many assorted pollinators were hungrily consuming the nectar, so remarkably in fact, that it attracted my attention, as well. Since becoming a Master Gardener, many native plants are more noticeable to me and this plant quickly became a “must-have” for my garden.

Identified as the 2017 Perennial Plant of the Year by the Perennial Plant Association, butterfly weed is known for its ability to support insects and birds and serves as the primary caterpillar food for the monarch butterfly. Despite its name, when you see how powerfully it attracts pollinators, you will never again think of it as a weed.

Preferring dry, sunny locations, butterfly weed blooms during June to September and is hardy in USDA Zones 4 to 9. Unlike other milkweeds, it has alternating leaves and non-milky sap. While it is slow to emerge in the spring, it reaches two or three inches high and about two inches wide. It is a very low-maintenance plant that tolerates drought and is generally not afflicted by insects or diseases. Additionally, deer usually do not eat butterfly weed.

Although Asclepias tuberosa is a prairie plant, it’s suitable for several types of gardens: meadows, native gardens, nature reserves, rain gardens, and increasingly in formal to semi-formal gardens. For a striking contrast, I enjoy pairing its orange flowers with lavender (Lavendula spp).

Butterfly weed can be grown from seed. A stratification period of two to four weeks is recommended for the seeds prior to planting. I place the seed packets into an airtight container in the vegetable drawer of my refrigerator to prepare them for planting. Since I collect and plant some of my own seeds, I expect to see some flower color variation. For best results, it is recommended that gardeners purchase seeds from reputable vendors.

The butterfly weed produces a large taproot that can extend a foot or more into the soil thus propagation by division is difficult but can be done in the fall, or in early spring prior to new growth. Identifying the ideal plant site is important for butterfly weed. As plants mature, they produce additional stems and tend not to transplant well. The taproot is also referred to as pleurisy root due to its prior medicinal use in treating lung inflammation.

Butterfly weed produces a seed pod after pollination. Measuring about three to six inches long, the seed pods, also known as follicles, turn brown and split, causing the seeds to be disbursed in the wind by their silky-tails. The seed pods can also be pruned to promote additional flowering and to prevent the plants from reseeding. The seed pods are attractive in dried flower arrangements.

One can hardly discuss butterfly weed without also discussing its chief consumer. This noteworthy perennial is significant as a host plant for the monarch caterpillar. Egg-laying female monarch butterflies prefer to lay eggs on the newer growth of the butterfly weed plant and will secrete about 700 eggs during a two to five week period. Depending on temperature, the egg stage lasts three to eight days. Caterpillars, also called larvae, emerge from the eggs and become voracious eaters of the butterfly weed and other milkweeds of the Asclepias genus.

With their yellow, white, and black bands, the monarch caterpillars are easily recognizable. During this nine to 14-day stage, the caterpillars molt as they outgrow their skin. The intervals between molts are called instars.

The monarch caterpillars consume toxins from the butterfly weed (and other milkweeds), called cardiac glycosides. This toxin is more concentrated in the caterpillar than in the leaves of the plant and is carried forward into the next two stages of metamorphism. Along with their bright warning colors and toxicity, predators have learned to avoid them since birds and other animals that eat them become sick and vomit.

Hormones within the caterpillar trigger the next stage of metamorphism and the pupa stage is often referred to as a chrysalis. Caterpillars don’t always remain on the butterfly weed to pupate. They can travel 15 to 20 feet away from the garden to find a location to pupate. After molting for the last time, the caterpillar hangs upside down and silk is produced from a spinneret at the bottom of its head. When encased, this stage lasts eight to 15 days under normal conditions and transformation is completed. Just prior to emerging, the black, orange, and white wing patterns become visible through the chrysalis.

Last year, after redesigning a raised flower bed to include butterfly weed at the side of my house, I noticed my first ever chrysalis.

It was so exciting!

The caterpillar had traveled from the side flower bed to a column on my front porch to pupate, a distance of about 10 feet. By the time I noticed it, the wing patterns were becoming visible and within a few days, the chrysalis was gone. I’ve since learned that they can attach themselves to just about anything to pupate and after emerging as an adult, live for about another two to six weeks. Monarchs that migrate south live all winter, about six to nine months.

Migrating monarchs are particularly vulnerable. Fewer and fewer monarchs survive their southern migration to their wintering sites in central Mexico and California. Widespread use of herbicides that destroy monarch nectar plants such as goldenrod, asters and milkweeds has had a great impact on monarch declines. Pesticide use also contributes to declining numbers of caterpillars and adult butterflies.

If you have well drained soil and are looking to incorporate a native plant into your landscape that is very low-maintenance, drought-tolerant, and meets the needs of the very selective monarch butterfly, I recommend including butterfly weed. By doing so, you can help improve the monarch butterfly population and gain hours of enjoyable pollinator watching at the same time.

Home Yard & Garden Newsletter at the University of Illinois

Honeyvine milkweed (Ampelamus albidus or Cynanchum laeve) is a native, perennial vine that spreads by seed and long spreading roots. The stems are slender, smooth, twining, and without the characteristic milky sap that is typically present with other milkweed species. The leaves are dark green, smooth and large, growing up to 6 inches long. They are heart-shaped on long petioles and opposite on the stem, which helps to distinguish this species from similar looking weedy vines such as bindweeds. Flowers appear mid-summer and are long lasting. Flowers are small, whitish or pinkish, sweetly fragrant, and borne in clusters – very different in appearance than the funnel shaped flowers of bindweed and morningglory vines. The flowers will develop into a 3 to 6 inch long, smooth, green seed pod that is similar to that of common milkweed. Once dry, it will split along the side and release seeds, each carried in the wind by a large tuft of white hairs. Pods persist into winter and can then be spotted easily in the landscape when evergreens are the backdrop. The presence of the pod hanging from a vine is a dead giveaway for identifying this weed. This weed can be a problem in tree plantings since it can twine around the plants. It prefers moist, fertile soil and full sun but can grow in a variety of conditions. It is often found in fencerows and disturbed sites. Other names for this plant include Bluevine and Sandvine.

Honeyvine milkweed flowers smell intoxicatingly sweet.

I have always thought of this plant as a weed. Recently I spent some time pulling new shoots from a bed for about the third time this summer. It is aggressive and persistent and I know it will be back. Unfortunately, herbicides are not an option for this particular site. Repeated hand removal can eventually eliminate it.

Heart-shaped, opposite leaves.

I have learned, however, that to many this plant is desirable as it serves as a food source for the Monarch butterfly. Butterfly gardening is quite popular now with the decline of the Monarch population. I came across one-pint plants available for sale on eBay. Had I have known this plant was so desirable I would have been carefully potting up those new shoots. Upon telling my husband about my findings and actions, he replied with, "and that’s why we’re not rich." Funny guy.

Last year’s seed pods.

Although it has its merits, I will continue to think of honeyvine milkweed as a weed in the location I have it. Perhaps in another location it would be fine. This vine can grow to 20 feet long and I have seen it take over sites with reckless abandon. It cares not for your design plans and will send up shoots at random. If you elect to plant honeyvine milkweed, choose your location carefully. Once you have it, you will continue to have it for many years. Seed spread will ensure that! Up to 50 pods can be produced from one plant. Seed pods often aren’t visible until the foliage has dropped. They should be removed from the area once noticed, to prevent spread. Use care when pulling vines with pods down so that the contained seeds are not accidentally released to the wind before making it to your hands. Systemic herbicides can be used on actively growing plants. Carefully read and follow all product label directions. (Michelle Wiesbrook)

The mention of trade names in this newsletter is for general information purposes only. It does not constitute an endorsement of one product over another, nor is discrimination intended against any product.

Velvetleaf weed management

Velvetleaf is a pest weed that’s been found on farms across New Zealand. We want your help to stop its spread. Find out what you can do, and get up-to-date information on the situation.

On this page:


A velvetleaf plant.

Velvetleaf (Abutilon theophrasti) is present on a number of properties throughout New Zealand.

It’s a serious cropping weed that can affect many arable crops.

Velvetleaf has been reported as causing up to 70% reduction in crop yields overseas.

We’re working to increase public knowledge on how to effectively manage velvetleaf and prevent its spread.

We’re also supporting land occupiers and rural contractors to take personal responsibility for controlling velvetleaf and reducing the risk of spread.

Why velvetleaf is such a big problem for farms

Velvetleaf is difficult to control – it’s resistant to many herbicides, and normal weed management practices don’t work at controlling it. It keeps emerging over summer and autumn, and its seeds can survive for up to 50 years. Seeds can lie dormant in soil and then germinate years later. This often happens in response to cultivation and movement of soil. A single plant can drop up to 33,000 seeds.

A velvetleaf patch left to seed for 3 years. Photo credit: Trevor James, AgResearch

How to identify velvetleaf

Velvetleaf is an annual broad-leaved weed that grows between 0.5m and 2.5m tall.

  • It has buttery-yellow flowers about 3cm across. It flowers from spring through autumn.
  • Leaves are large and heart-shaped and are velvety to the touch.
  • The plant has distinctive seedpods with 12 to 15 segments in a cup-like ring. Each seedpod is about 2.5cm in diameter.

What velvetleaf looks like in the early stages

  • Velvetleaf seeds will often stay dormant in the soil for years if left undisturbed.
  • Keep a look out for young plants such as these after cultivation, or other events that disturb the soil like earthworks.

What to do if you find it

Farmers can protect their property from velvetleaf. We want people to take action to control it on farms, and to stop it spreading between farms.

Report it

Report it so that we know about it. Take a photo of it and call us on our pest and disease hotline (0800 80 99 66). The photo will help us identify it. If you do have velvetleaf, then we can help you develop a plan to manage it. This is important so that we can understand how velvetleaf is behaving in New Zealand, and so that we can provide you with support to manage the weed.

Control it

Where is it?

The weed is on a number of properties across the country and could be in any crop. Canterbury, Otago, and Southland have the most affected properties. There is also velvetleaf in areas around Auckland and the Waikato. This incursion is associated with maize production. It has been spreading in these areas via dirty maize harvesters and contaminated maize silage.

How did it get here?

The main entry pathway was through imported fodder beet seeds that were contaminated. We have a list of seed lines that we know are contaminated on this page. We do not know what the entry pathway was for the earlier incursion associated with maize growing in Auckland and Waikato. This incursion seems to have happened more than 15 years ago, and we may never find out how it arrived.

If you’re a farmer (and especially if you sowed fodder beet seed in 2015), you should check your property carefully. If you find velvetleaf, you can use the information on this page to help you remove it and dispose of it. We ideally need to remove velvetleaf before it goes to seed.

Affected fodder beet seed lines

When velvetleaf was first found in the South Island in early 2016, we tested a range of imported fodder beet seed lines for velvetleaf contamination.

We only found velvetleaf seed in seed lines sourced from Italy. The imported seed was certified as meeting our biosecurity requirements by Danish authorities.

Fodder beet lines that have tested positive for velvetleaf contamination are:

  • Kyros DNK-16UB128
  • Bangor DNK-15UB079
  • Bangor DNK-16UB126
  • Bangor DNK-16UB114
  • Feldherr DNK-16UB131
  • Troya DNK-16UB112

However, this list is not exhaustive. There may be other contaminated lines. Farmers who planted fodder beet need to be careful and keep an eye out.

As soon as we found out about the contaminated lines, we reviewed and strengthened our importing requirements for pelletised seed.

All seed lines that test positive for velvetleaf are not cleared for entry into New Zealand. Any of these lines that arrive here are either turned away from New Zealand or destroyed.

What’s being done?

We’re continuing to work with partner organisations to manage velvetleaf. This is done through the Velvetleaf Programme – it’s a partnership aimed at containing velvetleaf and reducing its impact over time. It includes MPI, regional councils and industry groups (like Federated Farmers, Rural Contractors New Zealand, the Foundation for Arable Research, Beef + Lamb New Zealand, and DairyNZ).

In particular, we have worked with farmers who planted risk seed, to help develop management plans for those properties. The aim is to find the weed, contain it, and safely remove it. We’ve also used detector dogs to help locate it.

Supporting farmers through community outreach

There are people in community outreach – their roles involve supporting farmers and helping them to manage velvetleaf on their land.


Megan Hands: Phone 021 665 160 or email [email protected]


Working with researchers

We’re working with researchers to understand how to better control velvetleaf and stop it spreading. This research includes herbicide trials, experimenting with methods to promote germination of seeds, and other control methods.

Who to contact

If you’re finding it stressful dealing with velvetleaf, we encourage you to call Rural Support Trust (0800 787 254) for a free, confidential chat.