Different Varieties of Milkweed


Milkweed is a plant that is essential to the survival of monarch butterflies. There are several types of milkweed that monarchs rely on for various stages of their life cycle, including feeding and reproduction. Milkweed plants are known for their toxic properties, which makes them unpalatable to most animals, but essential for monarchs.

One of the most common types of milkweed is Asclepias tuberosa, which is native to the United States. This species prefers dry, open habitats and is commonly found throughout the country. Another common variety is Asclepias incarnata, also known as swamp milkweed, which grows in wetland habitats and is a favorite of female monarchs for egg-laying.

There are also non-native varieties of milkweed that have been introduced to the United States. These include Asclepias curassavica, also known as tropical milkweed, and Asclepias variegata, or white milkweed. These non-native varieties can provide a food source for monarchs throughout the year, but researchers have found that they can negatively impact the migration patterns and overall numbers of monarch populations.

In addition to providing food for monarchs, milkweed plants also serve as important overwintering habitat. Monarchs that migrate to Mexico for the winter rely on the dense foliage of milkweed plants to protect them from the elements. Common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) is a preferred species for overwintering, however, other varieties such as Asclepias giganteana and Asclepias oenotheroides are also utilized.

Despite its importance for monarchs, milkweed populations have been declining in recent years due to factors such as habitat loss and the use of herbicides. Efforts are being made by organizations such as the USDA and the University of Florida Extension to promote the planting and preservation of milkweed plants to support monarch conservation.

Milkweed Asclepiadaceae

Milkweed, a member of the Asclepiadaceae family, is a commonly found plant in many regions of the United States, including California. It is known for its habitat preference in open areas and tall grasslands.

Research conducted by Hellmich and others has shown that milkweed is a preferred plant for egg-laying by butterflies, especially monarch butterflies. It has been monitored in different regions, and publications from UF/IFAS have shown that milkweed populations are on the rise, which is beneficial for the increase in butterfly numbers.

The most common species of milkweed found in the United States include Asclepias syriaca, also known as Common Milkweed, and Asclepias incarnata, also known as Swamp Milkweed. These species prefer different soils and elevations, making their distribution more localized.

In spring, milkweed plants produce clusters of blooming flowers that serve as a food source for monarch butterflies and other wildlife. However, caution should be exercised when planting milkweed in forest regions, as it can sometimes spread and become invasive.

Efforts have been made to grow milkweed in gardens and other controlled environments, in an effort to increase the availability of suitable habitat for butterflies. Milkweed species like Asclepias tuberosa, also known as Butterflyweed, and Asclepias whorlednarrowleaf are commonly grown in these regions.

In addition to supporting butterfly populations, growing milkweed also helps with the migration of butterflies. Instead of relying on wild populations during their migration, butterflies can find milkweed plants for nourishment along their journey. This is particularly important in regions like the Midwest and Northern California.

All in all, milkweed of the Asclepiadaceae family plays a vital role in the life cycle of butterflies, providing them with a suitable habitat for egg-laying, as well as a food source during their developmental stages. It is an important plant to consider for anyone interested in wildlife gardening or conserving butterfly populations.

Common Milkweed Asclepias syriaca

Common Milkweed, known scientifically as Asclepias syriaca, is one of the most common types of milkweed plants. It is native to the eastern and central United States, and its distribution extends from the Gulf of Mexico to eastern Canada. Common Milkweed is a perennial plant that can grow up to 6 feet tall.

This milkweed variety is the host plant for the caterpillars of the Monarch butterfly, making it an essential component of butterfly gardens. The flowers of Common Milkweed are pink in color and are highly attractive to various pollinators, especially butterflies and bees. The blooms typically appear in the summer and are clustered together in large, showy inflorescences.

Common Milkweed has a deep taproot, which allows it to thrive in a wide range of soil conditions. It can tolerate both dry and moist soils and is often found in habitats such as meadows, prairies, fields, and roadsides. This milkweed species is also well-suited for growing in gardens and can be planted from seeds or established plants.

Common Milkweed is known for its high toxicity, which makes it unpalatable to many grazing animals. However, the milkweed sap can cause skin irritation and should be handled with caution. Despite its toxicity, Common Milkweed is an important source of food for caterpillars and adult butterflies. It provides nectar for a wide range of butterfly species and serves as a host plant for monarch butterfly larvae. The plant also attracts other pollinators, such as bees.

In addition to its ecological value, Common Milkweed has cultural significance. It has been used by Native American tribes for various medicinal purposes. The fibers of the plant have also been utilized to create mats, ropes, and other woven items. Today, Common Milkweed is recognized for its role in supporting Monarch butterfly populations and promoting wildlife conservation.

Butterflyweed Asclepias tuberosa

Butterflyweed, also known as Asclepias tuberosa, is a species of milkweed that can be found throughout North America. It is a popular variety of milkweed that supports the monarch butterfly population. In the spring, both monarch butterflies and other milkweed species seek out Butterflyweed as a source of food and a place to lay their eggs.

Butterflyweed is a native plant to many parts of the United States, including California, Kansas, and Florida. It is known for its showy orange flowers and milky white sap. However, gardeners in non-native areas, such as the northeast, can also grow non-native varieties that have similar characteristics.

Researchers at the University of Publications have studied the distribution and preference of butterflyweed among different habitats and sites. Their effort has shown that butterflyweed is most commonly found in the southeast and western parts of the country. In these areas, it is often the preferred plant for egg-laying by monarch butterflies.

However, researchers caution against planting non-native varieties of butterflyweed in areas where the native species are already present. The non-native varieties can outcompete the native plants and disrupt the delicate balance of the ecosystem. In these cases, it is better to support the growth of native butterflyweed species instead.

Butterflyweed is a popular plant for wildlife gardens and efforts to support monarch butterfly populations. Its bright flowers and nectar draw in butterflies, bees, and other pollinators. Additionally, the milky sap of the plant can act as a warning signal to predators, making it less likely for them to eat the butterflies or their eggs.

Overall, butterflyweed is a beautiful and important plant for both butterflies a

Swamp Milkweed Asclepias incarnata

The Swamp Milkweed, also known as Asclepias incarnata, is a plant that is commonly found in wetland habitats. It is one of the different types of milkweed plants that can be planted in gardens or other growing sites. The Swamp Milkweed is well known for its milky white sap, which attracts and benefits butterflies, especially the monarch species.

Swamp Milkweed has a wide distribution throughout North America, from California eastward to the Atlantic coast. It is a preferred habitat for monarch butterflies during their migration period. The plant is also known to attract other butterfly species, increasing the numbers and diversity of butterflies in the area.

Swamp Milkweed is adapted to grow well in wet soils, making it a great choice for gardens or field habitats that have overwintering or growing periods with high moisture levels. The plant blooms from late spring to early summer, producing clusters of pink flowers that are a source of nectar for butterflies and other pollinators.

Research conducted by the University of Florida (UF|IFAS) has monitored the benefits of Swamp Milkweed and other milkweed species on monarch butterflies. They have studied the plant’s distribution, migration patterns, and the relationship between the plant and the butterflies. Through their research, they seek to understand how the plant can be used to help conserve and protect monarch butterflies.

While Swamp Milkweed is a native plant, there are also non-native milkweed species, such as Calotropis giganteana and Zizotes speciosa, that are commonly planted in gardens and other sites to support monarchs and other butterflies. These non-native milkweed species can provide similar benefits to the monarchs, especially in areas where the native milkweed species may be limited in availability.

Planting Swamp Milkweed and other milkweed species in gardens or other growing sites not only benefits the butterflies but also adds beauty and diversity to the landscape. It allows individuals to actively participate in monarch conservation efforts and contribute to the overall health and well-being of pollinators.

Swamp Milkweed, with its attractive flowers and important role in supporting butterflies, is an excellent choice for gardeners and butterfly enthusiasts who want to create a thriving ecosystem for these magnificent creatures.

Benefits to Wildlife

There are several benefits that milkweed plants provide to wildlife, particularly to monarch butterflies and other pollinators. Milkweeds are a common host plant for monarch butterflies, which lay their eggs on the leaves. Once the eggs hatch, the caterpillars feed on the milkweed leaves as their primary food source.

In the United States, there are several species of milkweed that are commonly found, including the showy milkweed (Asclepias speciosa), butterflyweed (Asclepias tuberosa), and swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata). Each species of milkweed has its own unique characteristics and benefits to wildlife.

  • The showy milkweed, commonly found in the western United States, is a tall plant that provides a source of nectar for adult monarch butterflies during their migration.
  • The butterflyweed, also known as pleurisy root, is a smaller plant that is native to the midwest and eastern parts of the United States. It is a preferred host plant for monarch caterpillars and provides nectar for adult butterflies.
  • The swamp milkweed, with its pink flowers, is commonly found in wetland areas and serves as a vital food source for monarch caterpillars and adult butterflies.

Research has shown that planting milkweed varieties such as Asclepias syriaca and Asclepias oenotheroides can help increase monarch butterfly populations. Additionally, planting milkweed in gardens and landscapes can provide habitat for other pollinators, such as bees and butterflies.

In addition to monarch butterflies, other species of wildlife also benefit from milkweed plants. For example, the broad milkweed bug (Oncopeltus fasciatus) feeds on the seeds of milkweed plants. This insect is found throughout North America and has a preference for the woolly milkweed (Asclepias eriocarpa).

Overall, milkweed plants play a crucial role in supporting wildlife populations and contribute to the broader ecosystem. By ensuring the availability of milkweed plants, we can help sustain the migration of monarch butterflies and provide important food sources for a variety of species.

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Dr Heidi Parkes

By Dr Heidi Parkes

Senior Information Extension Officer QLD Dept of Agriculture & Fisheries.