Milkweeds: Beauties & Beasts
Jim Locklear, from
Some plants should be in every garden. Others should be kept out at all costs. The milkweeds qualify on both counts.
The milkweeds (genus Asclepias) are a large group of plants, with some 120 species in the
Americas and Africa. We have 17 species here in , occurring in a wide variety of
natural plant communities, including tallgrass prairie, sandhills prairie and
Two of our native species in particular have proven their merit as garden plants, being both beautiful and well-behaved.
Butterfly milkweed (A. tuberosa) is the best-known and most widely-grown. A showy wildflower in its native prairie habitat, butterfly milkweed also makes an outstanding garden perennial. Its popularity is due to its prolific clusters of bright red-orange flowers which smother the rounded, 1-2’ tall plants. Not only are its orange tones (sometimes ranging to yellow) uncommon among garden perennials, the flowering season of butterfly milkweed comes toward the end of the early summer rush, when many gardens are entering the doldrums. On top of all this, butterfly milkweed is a butterfly magnet, bringing even more color and animation to the garden.
Swamp milkweed (A. incarnata, photo above) is less commonly cultivated, but more gardeners are discovering its attributes. It has a different growth form than butterfly milkweed, with slender, willowy stems that can reach 5’ in height, topped with clusters of fragrant, purplish-red flowers. As the name implies, the native habitat of swamp milkweed is wet, marshy sites, but it adapts very well to typical gardens and residential landscapes. It also is highly attractive to butterflies.
Excepting these two, the majority of our milkweeds are not recommended as garden plants, unless milkweeds are the only thing you want in your garden. Some are especially adept at taking advantage of disturbed habitat like roadsides and agricultural land, and would swamp a flower bed like Husker fans on
While most should be kept at arm’s length from the garden, all of our milkweeds are worth getting to know up close in the wild. Milkweed flowers are among the wonders of the natural world, rivaled in complexity only by the orchids. As with the orchids, the pollination biology of milkweeds is fascinating, with milkweed flowers designed to snag the foot of a visiting butterfly, wasp or other insect so that it picks up a “sack” of pollen to carry to another flower.
Whether you bring them into your garden, or enjoy them in the wild, milkweeds are a beautiful and fascinating part of the rich flora of