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A Comprehensive Guide to Red-Ring Milkweed (Asclepias variegata)

Red-Ring Milkweed (Asclepias variegata) is a herbaceous perennial that is found in the mid-western and eastern United States. This plant is a host to the Monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus) and Queen butterfly (Danaus gilippus). It can grow from 1 to 3 feet tall and has flowers that are white with a purple to red ring at the base that bloom from May to July. It is hardy in zones 3-9.

Taxonomy and Naming of Red-Ring Milkweed (Asclepias variegata)

Herbarium specimen of red ring milkweed (Asclepias variegata).
Herbarium Specimen — Asclepias variegata L. collected in United States of America by The New York Botanical Garden (licensed under CC BY 4.0)

Taxonomy

Red-Ring milkweed (Asclepias variegata) was named and described by Carl Linnaeus, in Species Plantarum (1753). 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, variegata, is Latin for the two colored flowers (NC State Extension Gardener).

Common Name and Alternative Names

The common name apparently describes a red “ring” that surrounds the base of the flowers. A variant of this name apparently of the same origin is redring milkweed. Other common names describe the main color of the flowers and are White milkweed, white-flower milkweed, and white-flowered milkweed. One common name, variegated milkweed, is similar to the Latin species name and is likely of the same origin.

Physical Description of Red-Ring Milkweed (Asclepias variegata)

Close-up of white flowers of red ring milkweed (Asclepias variegata).
Flowers of Red Ring Milkweed — Masebrock, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Description

  • Plant Type: This plant is a herbaceous perennial.
  • Height: 1 to 4 feet
  • Stem: color ranges from green to purple
  • Leaves: The leaves are opposite, whorled, simple, entire, and ovate to oblong-ovate. They range in size from 2 to 6 inches in length and 1 to 4 inches in width. The leaves are glaucous (white) beneath (Woodson 1954). The leaves tend to show a reddish vein in the center.
  • Flower color: white with a purple to red ring.
  • Blooming period: This plant blooms from May to July. The flowers appear like a “snowball.”
  • Fruiting type and period: This plant has follicles that mature in the late summer and fall.

Range of Red-Ring Milkweed (Asclepias variegata) in the United States and Canada

Range map of red ring milkweed (Asclepias variegata) in the United States and Canada.
Kartesz, J.T., The Biota of North America Program (BONAP). 2015. North American Plant Atlas. (https://bonap.net/napa). Chapel Hill, N.C. [maps generated from Kartesz, J.T. 2015. Floristic Synthesis of North America, Version 1.0. Biota of North America Program (BONAP). (in press)].

This milkweed species grows in the mid-western and eastern United States except for northeastern New England. It is considered to be rare in the states of Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut. There is a historical collection in the province of Ontario in Canada.

Habitat

Roadside in Europe with wildflowers.
Roadside verge full of wildflowers by Christine Johnstone, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

This species grows in thickets, open woods, and roadsides that are dry and rocky or sandy. It likes places that have partial sun and light shade.

Hosted Insects

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

Other Supported Wildlife

Spider milkweed (Asclepias asperula) with honeybee.
Honeybee on Milkweed — LevyRat, CC0 1.0, via Wikimedia Commons

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

Frequently Asked Questions about Red-ring Milkweed (Asclepias variegata)

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?

Red-ring milkweed is listed as being similar to Asclepias jorgeana, but this species is only located in Mexico (Fishbein 1999). Other milkweeds that are similar include oval-leaved milkweed (Asclepias ovalifolia), but this milkweed is shorter in height. Woolly milkweed (Asclepias lanunginosa), has narrower leaves but looks similar. Like the former species, swamp white milkweed (Ascelpias perennis) also has narrower leaves and flatter unbels (Illinois Wildflowers).

The fruits are similar to purple milkweed (Asclepias purpurascens) and poke milkweed (Asclepias exaltata) (USDA Forest Service).

Is this plant invasive?

This species can grow in places that have been disturbed, but there is nothing in the literature indicating that it is invasive.

Gardening with Red-Ring Milkweed (Asclepias variegata)

Add Red-Ring Milkweed to Your Garden

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Plant of red ring milkweed (Asclepias variegata) in a wooded area.
Plant of Red Ring Milkweed — “Asclepias variegata” by coatlicue is marked with CC0 1.0.

Hardiness

This species is hardy in zones 3-9. 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 partial sun to light-shade. It favors dry rocky or sandy soils.

References

  • Fishbein, Mark and S.P. Lynch. 1999. Asclepias jorgeana (Asclepiadaceae), a new milkweed from montane western Mexico. Novon 9: 179-184.
  • 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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