University of Vermont Extension 
Department of Plant and Soil Science

Anytime News Article

Dr. Leonard Perry, Extension Professor
University of Vermont

Each year the Garden Club of America (GCA) names a Plant of the Year, giving it the Montine McDaniel Freeman Horticulture Award.  “The award is given to an outstanding native plant which is underutilized but possesses superior ornamental and ecological attributes.” The goal of this GCA award is to promote deserving native plants for more widespread use in landscapes.
The GCA Plant of the Year for 2014 is the Butterfly Weed (Asclepias tuberosa), a beautiful wildflower attractive to butterflies.  It totally is not deserving of the “weed” in its name, as it is quite desirable and not weedy.  A less used but appropriate common name is Butterfly Milkweed, as it is related to other milkweeds.  Unlike its kin, this one does not have a milky, sticky sap.  I like the name “Butterfly Love”.  As Native Americans used it for pulmonary ailments, it may be called “Pleurisy Root”. 
This is a slow grower, best purchased as a plant as it grows very slowly from seeds.  It emerges very late in spring too, so once planted, mark it for future years.  Site it properly and where you want, as it is difficult to transplant and have it survive, once it is established.  Once established, this native perennial is drought tolerant.  It does require a well-drained soil, but tolerates sandy to gravelly poor soils.  Grow it in full sun in rock gardens, native plant areas, or borders. 
Hardy in USDA zones 3 to 9 (to -30 degrees F or lower), it is native through most of the eastern U.S. but is seen more in the South.  It reaches 18 to 24 inches high, and about the same wide.  The clusters of uniquely shaped, orange flowers appear in mid-summer, followed by the long pods that open to release silky “parachutes” that are dispersed with the wind.  The flowers attract a range of butterflies, pollinators and beneficial insects.  Its main host is for the larvae of the Monarch butterfly—known and loved by many, but in danger from loss of such food sources.
Another native perennial receiving GCA recognition this year, with Honorable Mention, is the variegated Jacob’s Ladder ‘Stairway to Heaven’ (Polemonium reptans).  This is a selection of the species, which is a native wildflower of eastern woodlands and Midwest plains.  It was introduced in 2002, selected by Bill Cullina when he was with the New England Wildflower Society.  Being patented, its royalties support this society.  Most consider it the best variegated Jacob’s ladder, similar ones being ‘Brise d’Anjou’ and ‘Snow and Sapphires’. 
The low mounds of ferny leaves, green with white margins tinged pink, reach about one foot high and wide.  Pale, lavender-blue bell-shaped flowers on stalks to 2-feet high in drooping clusters appear in early to mid-summer.  This plant is hardy and performs best in USDA zones 3 to 7, grows in part to full sun, and prefers moist but well-drained soil.  Use this to edge shady paths, in borders in groupings, wildflower gardens, as a groundcover, or for cutting.
‘Raydon’s Favorite’ aster (Symphyotrichum oblongifolium var. angustus) received GCA Special Recognition in 2014.  The hundreds of blue-purple daisy-type flowers with yellow centers create a showy effect for weeks in the fall on multi-stemmed plants 2- to 3-feet tall and about half that wide.  The flowers serve as a nectar source for many butterfly species at a time of year when there is little else available to them.
The leaves are minty aromatic when handled, hence the common name of Aromatic aster.  This aster was highly ranked by “the Chicago Botanic Garden for disease and pest resistance, winter hardiness, cultural adaptability and flower production.”  It prefers full sun, and tolerates many soil types, as long as they are well-drained. 
This native aster is hardy in USDA zones 3-8, the species being native to the middle of the U.S. and much of the East.  This cultivar was believed to have come originally from Lookout Mountain, Tennessee.  It was introduced by Allen Bush when he was with Holbrook Farm, named after the plantsman Raydon Alexander of San Antonio, Texas from whom he was given the plant.  
You can view more past GCA winning native plants on their website (  These include another perennial-- ‘Purple Smoke’ false indigo—as well as many shrubs and trees.  Since these are winners for the U.S., pay attention to the hardiness zones for those that should grow in your area.  You can find the latest USDA hardiness zone map online as well (

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