This showy, well-behaved milkweed has succulent-like green leaves with pink midribs and rounded, bubble-gum-pink clusters of star-like flowers. It’s a true prairie species (another common name is prairie milkweed) whose fragrant blooms appear June through August. Its structural shape and bold texture really stand out, and it’s a great addition to butterfly and perennial gardens. It grows up to four feet tall in medium to medium-moist loamy, sandy, and clay soils with full or part sun. Site it carefully; underground rhizomes and a long tap root help it to tolerate drought but also make it difficult to transplant. It spreads less aggressively than common milkweed. During dry weather and when seed pods develop, it’s normal for some of the lower leaves to turn yellow and fall off the plant.
The fragrant blooms are an early nectar source for various bees, moths, hummingbirds, monarchs and other butterflies. Most of the insects that specialize on milkweeds are marked in colors of black and orange, such as monarchs, milkweed beetles, and orange assassin bugs. The bold (aposematic) coloration warns would-be predators that the insects have consumed the poisonous cardiac glycosides in the milkweed sap and are too toxic to be eaten.
Sullivant's milkweed can be distinguished from common milkweed by its slightly larger flowers, smooth leaves, and smooth pods (another common name is smooth milkweed). It’s also a little shorter than common milkweed and produces fewer umbels of flowers. Another similar species is purple milkweed, which has smaller, purplish flowers and short hairs on the undersides of its leaves.
According to The Columbus Dispatch naturalist Jim McCormac, Sullivant's milkweed is one of 17 native species in Ohio. McCormac writes, “In 1848, Ohio botanist William Starling Sullivant was exploring prairies west of Columbus. To his delight, he stumbled across a beautiful milkweed unknown to him. Sullivant had found a species new to science, and its describer, George Engelmann, named it Asclepias sullivantii — Sullivant’s milkweed — in honor of the Ohioan. The Darby Plains prairies where Sullivant found his milkweed are almost gone, transformed into America’s modern bread-basket prairie of beans, corn and wheat. Sullivant’s milkweed still lives on, however, eking out an existence in pioneer cemeteries, unmowed ditches and other scraps of prairie not yet obliterated.” This conversion of prairies to agricultural production is partly responsible for the decline of milkweeds and the monarchs that depend upon them.
Native habitats include prairies, cemetery prairies, moist meadows along rivers and woodlands, roadside ditches, and patches near railroads. Sullivant's milkweed is an indicator plant of average- to high-quality prairies, and it’s ideal for naturalized prairie plantings, native gardens, and wildflower meadows. Other species of plants native to Ohio that would be excellent additions to a milkweed garden include ashy sunflower, black-eyed Susan, dense blazing star, New England aster, shale barren aster, rattlesnake master, purple coneflower, tall ironweed, spotted Joe-pye, and ox-eye sunflower.
Reaches 2-4’ tall and 1-1 ½’ wide.
Grows in full sun to part shade.
Performs well in a variety of medium to medium-wet soils, including loamy, sandy, and clay.
Rounded clusters of flowers up to 3” wide grow at the end of central stems and axils of uppermost leaves from late spring well into summer. Each flower is about ½” across with 5 light-green to pinkish-purple sepals; pink to purplish-pink, lance-shaped petals; and 5 pinkish-purple, tubular-shaped hoods. Flowers are followed by seed pods 2-4” long that split open when ripe, releasing numerous silky-tailed seeds for dispersal by the wind.
Opposite leaves occur along the length of stout, smooth, unbranched stems, usually in an ascending position. They are 3-6” long, broadly oblong in shape, and untoothed with slightly wavy margins. The tips of the leaves are rounded, tapering abruptly to a short, narrow point. Central veins of leaves are thick and pink or purple.
Host plant to 12 species of Lepidoptera larvae, including Isabella tiger moth, cecropia silkmoth (both pictured here), and unexpected cycnia. The nectar of the flowers attracts many kinds of insects, including honey bees and native long- and short-tongued bees, wasps, flies, butterflies, skippers, and beetles. Long-tongued bees and swallowtail butterflies are very effective in cross-pollinating the flowers. Mammals tend to avoid this bitter-tasting and toxic plant.
Medicinal, Edible, and Other Uses:
Traditionally, the white sap was applied topically to remove warts and the roots were chewed to treat dysentery. Infusions of the roots and leaves were used to treat coughs, typhus fever, and asthma.
Native Americans taught early settlers how to properly cook milkweed so that it was edible. Warning
: only expert foragers should attempt to cook and eat milkweed.
Americans used the tough fibers of the stem to make strong rope. During WWII, the white seed floss, or coma, was used for life vests. Today, the coma is used in upholstery padding, pillows, and comforters.
A chemical extracted from the seed is being tested as a pesticide for nematodes.
Caution: This plant contains toxic cardiac glycosides and resinoids.
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