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A Comprehensive Guide to Velvetleaf Milkweed (Asclepias tomentosa)

Velvetleaf Milkweed (Asclepias tomentosa) is a herbaceous perennial that is found in the southeastern United States from North Carolina to Florida and in Texas. This plant is a host to three butterflies, including the Monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus). It can grow from 2 to 3 feet tall and has flowers that are greenish to white with tints of pink and maroon that bloom from April to August. It is hardy in zones 7-10.

Taxonomy and Naming of Velvetleaf Milkweed (Asclepias tomentosa)

Herbarium specimen of velvetleaf milkweed (Asclepias tomentosa).
Herbarium Specimen — Asclepias tomentosa Elliott collected in United States of America by The New York Botanical Garden (licensed under CC BY 4.0)

Taxonomy

Tuba milkweed (Asclepias tomentosa) was named and described by Stephen Elliott, in Sketch of the Botany of South-Carolina and Georgia, in 1817. 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, tomentosa, is Latin for the pubescent or hairy, presumably for the pubescence of the underside of the leaves.

Common Name and Alternative Names

The common name presumably describes the leaf of the plant. Another common name, is a variation with a hyphen and is velvet-leaf milkweed (Singhurst, et al. 2015). It has also been called Sandhills Milkweed, apparently in reference to the habitat and Tuba Milkweed, for the shape of the flowers.

Physical Description

Greenish-white flowers of velvetleaf milkweed (Asclepias tomentosa).
Flowers of Velvetleaf Milkweed — Asclepias tomentosa Elliott collected in United States of America (licensed under CC0 1.0)
  • Plant Type: This plant is a herbaceous perennial.
  • Height: 2 to 3 feet
  • Stem: slightly pubescent
  • Leaves: The leaves are opposite, simple, entire, and oblong or oval to obovate in shape. The leaves range in size from 1.5 to 4 inches in length and 0.5 to 2 inches in width (Woodson 1954). The margins of the leaves have been described as wavy (Baker 1926).
  • Flower color: yellow-cream, green and/or with pink to maroon tints. It can also have some orange coloring (Singhurst, et al. 2015).
  • Blooming period: This plant blooms from April to August.
  • Fruiting type and period: This plant has follicles that mature in the late summer and fall.

Range of Velvetleaf Milkweed (Asclepias tomentosa) in the United States and Canada

Range map of velvetleaf milkweed (Asclepias tomentosa) 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 in the southeastern United States from North Carolina to Florida and in Texas. It is considered rare in the states of North Carolina and Georgia.

Habitat

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

This species grows in sandy pine woodlands and scrub oak sandhills. In North Carolina is it associated with long-leaf pine (Pinus palustris), but does appear to require fire (Vascular Plants of North Carolina).

Hosted Insects

Soldier butterfly on a twig.
Soldier Butterfly (Danaus eresimus) — Korall, CC BY 3.0, 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). However, research has shown that this species is rarely used by monarch butterflies at least in Florida (Malcolm and Brower 1986). Queen butterfly larva have been described as using this plant (Minno 1992).

Other Supported Wildlife

Bumblebee on pink flower.
Pink flower with Bumblebee — Joaquim Alves Gaspar, 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 Velvetleaf Milkweed (Asclepias tomentosa)

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 pineland milkweed (Asclepias obovata), but pineland milkweed has a mucronate leaf tip, whereas tuba milkweed has an apiculate tip (Weakley 2022). The pineland milkweed has a more tomentose stem.

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 Velvetleaf Milkweed (Asclepias tomentosa)

Plant of velvetleaf milkweed (Asclepias tomentosa) in a wooded area.
Plant of Velvetleaf Milkweed — Asclepias tomentosa Elliott collected in United States of America (licensed under CC0 1.0)

Hardiness

This species is hardy in zones 7-10. 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, are sandy and in mesic to dry soils.

References

  • Baker, Mary Francis. 1926. Florida wild flowers; an introduction to the flora of the Florida peninsula. (New York: The Macmillan Company).
  • Malcolm, S.B. and Lincoln P. Brower. 1986. Selective Oviposition by Monarch Butterflies Danaus plexippus L. in a mixed stand of Asclepias currasavica L. and Asclepias incarnata L. in south Florida USA. Journal of the Lepidopterists’ Society. 40: 255-263.
  • Minno, Marc C. 1992. Butterflies of the Archbold Biological Station, Highlands County, Florida. Journal of the Lepidopterists Society 46: 138-158.
  • Singhurst, Jason, Ben Hutchins, and Walter Holmes. 2015. Identification of the Milkweeds in Texas. Lady Bird Johnson Wildlife Center.
  • 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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