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A Comprehensive Guide to Dwarf Milkweed (Asclepias involucrata)

Dwarf Milkweed (Asclepias involucrata) is a herbaceous perennial that is native to the southern Great Plains and southwest in the United States. This plant is a host to the Queen (Danaus gilippus) and Monarch (Danaus plexippus) butterflies. Growing from 0.1 to 1 foot tall, this species has white, green, to yellow flowers that bloom from March to July. It is hardy in zones 6-9.

Taxonomy and Naming of Dwarf Milkweed (Asclepias involucrata)

Herbarium specimen of dwarf milkweed (Asclepias involucrata).
Herbarium Specimen — Asclepias involucrata Engelm. ex Torr. collected in United States of America by The New York Botanical Garden (licensed under CC BY 4.0)

Taxonomy

Dwarf Milkweed (Asclepias involucrata) was originally named and described by Georg Engelmann, a German botanist, but was invalidly published. The name was published correctly by John Torrey in 1859. Since this time, several other names for this plant have been proposed, but it has kept the same name. This species 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, involucrata, is Latin for involucre, referring to the flower.

Common Name and Alternative Names

The common name comes from the short stature of the plant.

Physical Description of Dwarf Milkweed (Asclepias involucrata)

Cream flowers of dwarf milkweed (Asclepias involucrata).
Flowers of Dwarf Milkweed — “Asclepias involucrata” by aspidoscelis is marked with CC0 1.0.

Description

  • Plant Type: This plant is a herbaceous perennial
  • Height: 0.4 to 1 foot
  • Stem: The stem is ascending and pubescent (Woodson 1954) or decumbent (Heil 2013).
  • Leaves: The leaves are opposite to sometimes alternate, subsessile to sessile, simple, entire, and narrow lanceolate in shape. The leaves are 0.4 to 5 inches long and about 0.04 to 1 inch wide. The leaf margins are white-ciliate (Kearney and Peebles 1942).
  • Flower color: white to green in Texas, yellow westward (Singhurst and Hutchins 2015), pinkish (Welsh 1987), or purplish (Yavapai County Native and Naturalized Plants).
  • Blooming period: This plant blooms from March to July.
  • Fruiting type and period: This plant has follicles that mature in the late summer and fall.

Range of Dwarf Milkweed (Asclepias involucrata) in the United States and Canada

Range map of dwarf milkweed (Asclepias involucrata) 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 south-central and southwestern United States. It is considered to be rare in the states of Texas, Oklahoma, and Colorado. Outside of the US, it is native to northern Mexico.

Habitat

Prairie habitat in United States.
Prairie Habitat — USFWS Mountain-Prairie, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

This species grows in prairies with gravelly/sandy soil, chaparral, and arroyos. It can also occur in desert shrub, sagebrush, and pinyon-juniper communities (Welsh 1987).

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. This plant is apparently a favorite food for jackrabbits (Smithsonian 1908).

Frequently Asked Questions about Dwarf Milkweed (Asclepias involucrata)

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 shows that this species has been used for stomach remedies, toothaches, and as a food source.

How is this plant distinguished from other milkweeds?

This milkweed is similar to Eastwood’s milkweed (Asclepias eastwoodiana). However, Eastwood’s milkweed has purple flowers and broader leaves (Howell 1945). This species is also close to swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata), but swamp milkweed has pink to purple flowers, whereas this species has white to greenish-white flowers (Tidestrom 1925). The non-purple flowers also separate it from bract milkweed (Asclepias brachystephana) (Wooton 1915). This species has been lumped together at times with big-seed milkweed (Asclepias macrosperma), but big-seed milkweed has undulating margins and more pubescent, unlike dwarf milkweed (SW Colorado Wildflowers).

Is this plant invasive?

This plant has not been shown to be invasive in the literature.

Gardening with Dwarf Milkweed (Asclepias involucrata)

Plant of dwarf milkweed (Asclepias involucrata) in a dry area.
Plant of Dwarf Milkweed — “Asclepias involucrata” by aspidoscelis is marked with CC0 1.0.

Hardiness

This species is hardy in zones 6-9. 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.

Optimal Conditions

This species grows best in places it can receive full sun and well-drained sandy or peaty soil (Useful Temperate Plants). This plant can handle partial shade conditions.

Planting Dwarf Milkweed

Most sources suggest planting the seeds of this species directly in the ground during the fall.

References

  • Barneby, R.C. 1945. A New Species of Asclepias from Nevada. Leaflets of Western Botany. 4: 210-211.
  • Heil, Kenneth D., Steve L. O’Kane, Linda Mary Reeves, and Arnold Clifford. 2013. Flora of the four corners region: vascular plants of the San Juan River drainage, Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, and Utah. Monographs in Systematic Botany from the Missouri Botanical Garden v.124.
  • Kearney, Thomas H. and Robert H. Peebles. 1942. Flowering Plants and Ferns of Arizona. (Washington, DC: USDA) Misc. Publ. no. 423.
  • Singhurst, Jason and Ben Hutchins. 2015. Identification of Milkweeds in Texas. Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center and Texas Parks and Wildlife.
  • Smithsonian Institution. 1908. Annual Report of the Bureau of American Ethnology to the Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution. (Washington, DC: U.S. Govt. Printing Office).
  • Tidestrom, Ivar. 1925. Flora of Utah and Nevada. Contributions of the United States National Herbarium. v. 25.
  • Welsh, S.L., N.D. Atwood, L.C. Higgins, S. Goodrich. 1987. A Utah Flora. Great Basin Naturalist Memoir no. 9.
  • Woodson, Robert E. 1954. The North American Species of Asclepias L. Annals of the Missouri Botanical Garden 41: 1-211.
  • Wooton, E.O. and Paul Carpenter Standley. 1915. Flora of New Mexico. Contributions of the United States National Herbarium. v. 19.
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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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