Unlike most milkweeds, this species prefers to grow in dappled sunlight or even deep shade, and it grows even more vigorously and with larger leaves when supplied with moist conditions. The large, egg-shaped leaves with pointed tips, which resemble those of pokeweed, led to this milkweed’s common name. The leaves exude the same sticky, milky irritant that other milkweeds produce. Poke milkweed grows 4 to 6 feet tall (perhaps this is why it’s named exaltata, or “elevated”) in dry-to-moist, well-drained loamy soil. Individual plants may live for decades, but they are not aggressive spreaders.
The extremely fragrant blooms appear for over a month between May and July, offering abundant amounts of nectar and pollen to many pollinators, including butterflies, bees, skippers, and the occasional hummingbird. Poke milkweed doesn’t have the tight cluster of flowers typical of many milkweed species; instead, it has an umbel of fewer flowers on long, swooning pedicels. The flowers appear to be in motion—five greenish petals soar away from the creamy white-to-purplish crown of hoods with protruding horns. The drooping white flowers, broad leaves, and tall stature bring an elegant glow to shadier borders.
Native habitats include shores, woodlands, and woodland edges. Great for cottage and butterfly gardens, edges of woods and streams, and naturalized areas.
Grows 4-6’ tall and 2-3’ wide.
Prefers part shade but tolerates full sun.
Prefers medium moisture and fertile soil.
White flowers with lavender-to-green accents bloom May-July. There are around 10 flowers per umbel. Narrow and hairy green pods are 4-6” long and contain dark brown seeds with comas, or white tufts, that hummingbirds often use to line their nests.
Smooth, dark green leaves are egg shaped and up to 6” long. Leaf edges may be a little wavy and tapered to a point. Attachment is opposite on smooth, light green-to-purplish stems. The plant has a long tap root.
Host plant to 12 species of Lepidoptera, including monarchs, great spangled fritillaries, tiger swallowtails, and pearl crescents. The flowers attract numerous types of pollianting insects.
Medicinal, Edible, and Other Uses:
Although the plant is poisonous, Native Americans applied the sap for wart removal and used the roots to treat dysentery.
The cotton-like fluffy comas have been used to stuff life preservers and other items.
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