UNION — Piedmont Physic Garden (PPG) welcomes summer intern Hannah Spencer, a senior at Clemson University, pursuing a Bachelor of Science in Environmental and Natural Resources, with a minor in Urban Forestry.
Her major provides many opportunities to explore forestry, wildlife management, horticulture and plant care, and writing, and PPG is the perfect setting.
“It’s really a win-win relationship for us and for Hannah,” said PPG founder Toccoa Switzer. “Hannah is sharing her experience and education with us and she’s a natural. In turn, we provide her with a wonderful environment to study plant life and broaden her exposure.”
Most recently, Spencer is working on a research project at Clemson investigating several common invasive tree species and the traits that allow them to thrive in the Southeast. She and her teammates presented posters on their research at the Southeast Exotic Pest Plant Council and at the Clemson Creative Inquiry Symposium, and are writing a manuscript of their research to submit for publication.
She is also a member of the writing team for Tigra scientifica, Clemson’s science news magazine. Her articles focus on new research concerning ecology and human interactions with the natural world. Next year she will be a tutor at Clemson’s Writing Center and a student researcher for a project on peach blossom phenology.
After graduation she hopes to explore science writing and ecological restoration. She is excited for the summer at Piedmont Physic Garden and hopes to learn more about plants, plant care, and community engagement.
The Butterfly Weed
By Hannah Spencer
Summer signifies color in the plant world, and Union and the Piedmont Physic Garden (PPG) are plentiful with blooms of all sorts. One plant in particular stands out this time of year for its mass of tiny, vibrant, unusually shaped orange blooms: the butterfly weed. You see it growing in gardens and on roadsides all over South Carolina, often covered in several species of caterpillar or butterfly.
Butterfly weed is a wildflower native to North America, found as far north as Ontario, as far south as Florida, and as far west as California. It is known scientifically as Asclepias tuberosa and goes by several different common names, including butterfly milkweed, orange milkweed, chigger flower, and pleurisy root.
Butterfly weed is part of a group of plants called milkweeds (Asclepias). There are more than 70 different species of milkweed, and they contain a chemical compound that is poisonous to many animals, including humans. You may recognize milkweed as an important component in butterfly gardens: the monarch caterpillar feeds exclusively on milkweeds, and actually incorporates the poison into its own body mass as a way to protect itself from predators.
When the caterpillar metamorphoses into a stunning black and orange butterfly, it feeds on the nectar of the milkweed flowers (though not exclusively), along with many other species of butterfly and bee.
The genus name of butterfly weed, Asclepias, is derived from the name of the Greek god of medicine. Many Native American groups used the root of butterfly weed to cure a variety of ailments, including lung conditions like tuberculosis and pleurisy (this is how the plant got the common name “pleurisy root”). European settlers, upon their arrival in North America, also adopted the plant into their medicine cabinets. Butterfly weed is purported to cure snakebite, tapeworm, sore throat, rashes, and diarrhea, among other things, but be warned — not all uses have been scientifically validated, and an overdose can be lethal.
Butterfly weed is a hardy plant that can withstand the horrors of deer, drought, and poor soils. It thrives in high light areas and may take several years to establish in a new site before producing its tantalizing bouquet of blooms. It sinks a long taproot deep into the soil and, as a result, does not transplant easily.
It can grow to between one and three feet tall, with slender, deep green leaves along the length of the stem and clusters of bright flowers perched on top. After a long flowering season, between June and August, butterfly weed produces large, pointed green seed pods, which should be removed if you don’t want the plant to self-seed.
If left alone, the pods will release small seeds equipped with pale, silky tails that will drift all over your garden on the wind.
Hannah Spencer is a summer intern at Piedmont Physic Garden and a Bachelor of Science in Environmental and Natural Sciences major at Clemson University. Here she is sitting beside a butterfly weed growing in the Piedmont Physic Garden. The butterfly weed is the subject of an article written by Spencer which is being published today along with her biography. Vibrant blossoms of the butterfly weed are seen in gardens and along the roadsides of South Carolina.
The Piedmont Physic Garden is a 501 (c) (3) organization whose mission is horticultural and environmental education for children, teens and adults in Union County and the surrounding Piedmont region of South Carolina.
Hannah Spencer is a summer intern at PPG, and a Bachelor of Science in Environmental and Natural Sciences major at Clemson University.