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A Comprehensive Guide to Cutler’s Milkweed (Asclepias cutleri)

Cutler’s Milkweed (Asclepias cutleri) is a herbaceous perennial that is native and rare in the southwestern United States. This plant is a host to the Queen (Danaus gilippus) and Monarch (Danaus plexippus) butterflies. Growing from 2 to 6 inches tall, this species grows in sand dunes and gravelly areas and has greenish-rose flowers that bloom from April to June. It is hardy in zones 5-7.

Taxonomy and Naming of Cutler’s Milkweed (Asclepias cutleri)

Herbarium specimen of Cutler's milkweed (Asclepias cutleri).
Herbarium Specimen — Asclepias cutleri Woodson collected in United States of America by The New York Botanical Garden (licensed under CC BY 4.0)

Taxonomy

Cutler’s Milkweed (Asclepias cutleri) was originally named and described by Robert Woodson, an American botanist, in 1939. This species has kept the same name since the description and is a member of the Dogbane Family (Apocynaceae).

Meaning of the Scientific and Common Names

Scientific Name

The genus name, Asclepias, is named for the Greek god of healing, Asklepios (Flora of Wisconsin). The species name, cutleri, is in honor of Hugh Cutler, who collected the plant (SW Colorado Wildflowers).

Common Name and Alternative Names

The common name comes from the last name of Hugh Cutler, who collected the plant.

Physical Description

Plant of Cutler's milkweed (Asclepias cutleri) in desert.
Plant Growing in Desert — “cutler’s milkweed” by Isaac Krone is licensed under CC BY 4.0.
  • Plant Type: This plant is a herbaceous perennial
  • Height: 2 to 6 inches tall
  • Stem: The stem is simple and branches at the rootstalk and is pubescent.
  • Leaves: The leaves are irregularly alternate, simple, entire, sessile, and filiform in shape (Woodson 1954). The leaves are 1 to 3 inches long and about 0.05 to 0.1 inches wide. The leaves are covered in fine pubescence.
  • Flower color: greenish-rose (Woodson 1954), lavender (Welsh and Thorne 1979), or pinkish to off-white (swbiodiversity.org).
  • Blooming period: This plant blooms from April to June.
  • Fruiting type and period: This plant has follicles that mature in the late summer and fall.

Range of Cutler’s Milkweed (Asclepias cutleri) in the United States and Canada

Range map of Cutler's milkweed (Asclepias cutleri) in the United States and Canada.
Range Map Credit: Kartesz, J.T., The Biota of North America Program (BONAP). 2023.(website https://bonap.org/). Chapel Hill, N.C. [maps generated from Kartesz, J.T. 2023. Floristic Synthesis of North America, Version 1.0. Biota of North America Program (BONAP). (in press)]

This milkweed species is native to the southwestern United States and is considered rare in each state. This species is endemic to the Colorado plateau (Sphar 1991).

Habitat

Desert habitat with sand in Arizona.
Desert Shrub Habitat — Patrick Alexander from Las Cruces, NM, CC0 1.0, via Wikimedia Commons

This species grows in sandy/gravelly places (Woodson 1954) such as sand dunes with desert shrub and pinyon-juniper (Welsh and Chatterley 1985) at elevations of around 3,000 to 5,000 feet.

Hosted Insects

Queen Butterfly on Twig.
Queen Butterfly (Danaus gilippus) — Korall, CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Other Supported Wildlife

Bumblebee on pink flower.
Bumblebee on Flower — Weerlicht, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

This species is a nectar source to other butterflies, skippers, bees, and wasps during the growing season.

Frequently Asked Questions

Is this plant poisonous?

Like other milkweeds, it has cardiac glycosides (cardenolides) and is considered to be poisonous with ingestion.

Does this plant have any ethnobotanical uses?

The Native American Ethobotanical Database does not cite this species specifically, but milkweeds in general have been used for pharmaceuticals, fibers, and foods.

How is this plant distinguished from other milkweeds?

This plant is most similar to bract milkweed (Asclepias brachystephana) and wheel milkweed (Asclepias uncialis). However, this species has narrower leaves (Woodson 1939). It is also close to Ruth’s milkweed (Asclepias ruthiae), but whereas this milkweed has narrow leaves and Ruth’s milkweed has ovate leaves (Welsh, et al 1987).

Is this plant invasive?

This plant has not been noted as being weedy and is considered rare.

Gardening with Cutler’s Milkweed (Asclepias cutleri)

Plant of Cutler's milkweed (Asclepias cutleri) in the desert.
Plant Growing in Desert — “cutler’s milkweed” by Isaac Krone is licensed under CC BY 4.0.

Hardiness

This species is hardy roughly in zones 5-7. If your garden is within these zones and you have the right growing conditions (soil, moisture and exposure), you may well be able to grow this plant. However, if planted outside of its range, the hosted species may not recognize the plant or be harmed by ingesting a different species with an unfamiliar chemical composition. However, this is a rare species and is not in the horticultural trade.

Optimal Conditions

This species can grow in full sun to partial-shade in well-drained sandy soil.

References

  • Spahr, Robin. 1991. Threatened, endangered, and sensitive species of the Intermountain Region. (Ogden, UT: USDA Forest Service).
  • Welsh, Stanley L., Duane N. Atwood, Sherel-Higgins Goodrich. 1987. A Utah Flora. Great Basin Naturalist Memoirs 9: 1-895.
  • Welsh, Stanley L. and Matthew L. Chatterley. 1985. Utah’s Rare Plants Revisited. Great Basin Naturalist 45 (2): 173-236.
  • Welsh, Stanley L. and K.H. Thorne. 1979. Illustrated Manual of proposed endangered and threatened plants of Utah. (Denver, CO: US Fish and Wildlife Service).
  • Woodson, Robert E. 1954. The North American Species of Asclepias L. Annals of the Missouri Botanical Garden 41: 1-211.
  • Woodson, Robert E. 1939. Two New Asclepiads From The Western United States. Annals of the Missouri Botanical Garden 26: 261-264.
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Robert Coxe

Robert Coxe

Robert Coxe is a professional ecologist and botanist who has worked as the State Ecologist of Delaware and as an ecologist for the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy. He is also a former Past-President of the Pennsylvania Academy of Science. He currently is an innkeeper at McMullen House Bed & Breakfast LLC and a web designer and owner for Silphium Design LLC.

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