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A Comprehensive Guide to Few-flower Milkweed (Asclepias lanceolata)

Few-flower Milkweed (Asclepias lanceolata) is a herbaceous perennial that is found on the Atlantic and Gulf coasts of the United States from New Jersey to Texas. This plant is a host to three butterflies, including the Monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus). It can grow from 2 to 5 feet tall and has flowers that are golden yellow, orange, to red that bloom from May to August. It is hardy in zones 5-11.

Taxonomy and Naming of Few-flower Milkweed (Asclepias lanceolata)

Herbarium specimen of few-flower milkweed (Asclepias lanceolata).
Herbarium Specimen of Few-flower Milkweed — Harvard University Public Domain
Isoneotype of few-flower milkweed (Asclepias lanceolata).
Isoneotype of Few-flower Milkweed — Asclepias lanceolata Walter collected in United States of America by The New York Botanical Garden (licensed under CC BY 4.0)

Taxonomy

Few-flower milkweed (Asclepias lanceolata) was named and described by Thomas Walter, in Flora Caroliniana, in 1788. Andre Michaux, a French botanist, also described a similar plant in 1811 called Asclepias paupercula. This plant later became a variety of this species and then was lumped into it. The species has kept this name since 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, lanceolata, is Latin for the lanceolate leaves of the plant.

Common Name and Alternative Names

The common name refers to the small number of flowers on the plant. Another common name, fewflower milkweed, is a variation without the hyphen. Other names, such as lanceolated milkwort, refers to the leaves, and red milkweed, refers to the flower color. This plant has also been called the everglade milkweed (Eaton 1932), smooth orange milkweed (Stone 1911), and sparsely flowered milkweed (Mohr 1901).

Physical Description of Few-flower Milkweed (Asclepias lanceolata)

Plant of few-flower milkweed (Asclepias lanceolata) with orange flowers.
Plant of Few-flower Milkweed with Flowers — Asclepias lanceolata Walter observed in United States of America by John Kees (licensed under CC0 1.0)

Description

  • Plant Type: This plant is a herbaceous perennial.
  • Height: 2 to 5 feet
  • Stem: smooth and green to purple in color
  • Leaves: The leaves are opposite, simple, entire, and linear-lanceolate in shape. The leaves range in size from 2.5 to 10 inches in length and 0.25 to 0.75 inches in width and are slightly glaucous beneath (Woodson 1954).
  • Flower color: golden yellow, orange, red to reddish-purple There are less than 10 flowers per umbel and has been noted to have the largest milkweed flower in New Jersey. (Fowler et al. 1910).
  • Blooming period: This plant blooms from May to August.
  • Fruiting type and period: This plant has follicles that mature in the late summer and fall.

Range of Few-flower Milkweed (Asclepias lanceolata) in the United States and Canada

Range map of few-flower milkweed (Asclepias lanceolata) 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 found on the Atlantic and Gulf coasts of the United States from New Jersey to Texas. It is considered rare in the states of New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland, and Virginia.

Habitat

Longleaf pine barren habitat in Florida.
Pine Barren Habitat — National Archives and Records Administration, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

This species grows on the edges of fresh and salt marshes and pine barrens, prairies, savannas and glades that are wet. In New Jersey it is reported to only be on the edges of salt marshes (Stone 1911) and (Alexander and Svenson 1943). In Florida, it has been described as being on marl prairies in the everglades (Artz and Waddington 2006).

Hosted Insects

Monarch butterfly on green flower.
Green Flower with Monarch Butterfly (Danaus plexippus) — U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

This species is a host for the Monarch Butterfly (Danaus plexippus), the Queen Butterfly (Danaus gilippus), and the Soldier Butterfly (Danaus eresimus).

Other Supported Wildlife

Honeybee on purple flower.
Purple Aster with Honeybee — John Severns (Severnjc), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

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

Frequently Asked Questions about Few-flower Milkweed (Asclepias lanceolata)

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 list this species in particular, but milkweeds in general have been used for a number of medicinal uses and foods.

How is this plant distinguished from other milkweeds?

This milkweed is similar to the swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata ssp. incarnata), but few-flower milkweed has an orange to red flower, a shorter petiole, and a generally more southern distribution. Swamp milkweed on the other hand has pink to white flowers, a longer petiole, and at least with this subspecies a more northern distribution (Weakley 2022). Few-flower milkweed is also similar to red milkweed (Asclepias rubra) (Singhurst et al 2015 and Eaton 1932), but red milkweed has an acute hood on the flower and wider leaves, versus the rounded hood and more narrow leaves on the other (Singhurst et al 2015).

Is this plant invasive?

This species is rather restricted in habitat and would not be considered invasive and has not been noted as invasive in the literature.

Gardening with Few-flower Milkweed (Asclepias lanceolata)

Plant of few-flower milkweed (Asclepias lanceolata) in an open area.
Plant of Few-flower Milkweed — Asclepias lanceolata Walter observed in United States of America by Jana Miller (licensed under CC0 1.0)

Hardiness

This species is hardy in zones 5-11. 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 where it can receive full sun to part shade and has soils that are loamy and are moist to wet.

References

  • Alexander, E.J. and H.K. Svenson. 1943. The Field Trip to the New Jersey Coast and Pine Barrens Friday and Saturday, June 26-27, 1942. Torreya 43: 170-173.
  • Artz, Derek R. and Keith D. Waddington. 2006. The effects of neighboring tree islands on pollinator density and diversity, and on pollination of a wet prairie species, Asclepias lanceolata (Apocynaceae). Journal of Ecology 94: 597-608.
  • Eaton, Mary. 1932. Addisonia: colored illustrations and popular descriptions of plants. New York: New York Botanical Garden.
  • Fowler, Henry W., John Bernhard Smith, and Witmer Stone. 1910. Annual Report of the New Jersey State Museum. Trenton, NJ: New Jersey State Museum.
  • Mohr, Charles. 1901. Plant Life of Alabama, an account of the distribution, modes of association, and adaptations of the flora of Alabama, together with a systemic catalogue of the plants growing in the state. Montgomery, AL: Brown Printing Company.
  • Singhurst, Jason, Ben Hutchins, and Walter Holmes. 2015. Identification of the Milkweeds in Texas. Lady Bird Johnson Wildlife Center.
  • Stone, Witmer. 1911. The plants of Southern New Jersey; with especial reference to the flora of the Pine Barrens and the geographic distribution of the species. Trenton: New York Botanical Garden.
  • Weakley, A.S., and the Southeastern Flora Team. 2022. Flora of the southeastern United States. University of North Carolina Herbarium, North Carolina Botanical Garden.
  • Woodson, Robert E. 1954. The North American Species of Asclepias L. Annals of the Missouri Botanical Garden 41: 1-211.
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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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