Arboretum Paths: Mississippi’s many native milkweeds

Published 7:00 am Wednesday, October 7, 2015

In Mississippi, red milkweed (Asclepias rubra) has only been recorded in nearby Stone and Forrest County, but if you learn to recognize this species, perhaps you will be the first to report it in Pearl River County! (Photo courtesy of Southeastern Flora)

In Mississippi, red milkweed (Asclepias rubra) has only been recorded in nearby Stone and Forrest County, but if you learn to recognize this species, perhaps you will be the first to report it in Pearl River County! (Photo courtesy of Southeastern Flora)

By Pat Drackett, Director, The Crosby Arboretum
MSU Extension Service
Are you a fan of butterflies? Do you search for plants in your local garden center that will attract these dancing beauties to your garden?

Today, many gardeners will consider the function a plant contributes to their landscape in addition to its aesthetic beauty. Pick up any gardening magazine or browse a bookstore’s garden section to see that advice abounds for designing gardens to draw wildlife, hummingbirds, and pollinators, including butterflies.

Many gardeners are familiar with the news of the recent declines in monarch butterfly populations. Understandably, we’ve had inquiries at the Arboretum for advice on what species to plant in the home garden. Many gardeners are quite familiar with the common orange butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa), but have heard of very few of the other approximately 70 species that are native to the U.S.

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According to Dr. Wayne Morris of Troy University, who has conducted field walks at the Arboretum, at least 15 species of milkweed are found in Mississippi. Around two-thirds of these are relatively common and the remaining third are more uncommon.

Two native milkweeds occur at the Crosby Arboretum. They are fewflower milkweed (Asclepias lanceolata) and longleaf milkweed, both coastal species found in wet pine savanna habitats such as our south pitcher plant bog.

I’ve seen both fewflower and longleaf milkweed growing in wet locations along local Pearl River County roadsides, and butterfly weed growing on dry banks along Mississippi highways. Butterfly weed is the most common Mississippi species, growing throughout the state, and is also a common native perennial found in garden centers. However, if your garden doesn’t provide the right conditions, notably dry, well-drained soil it prefers, you are out of luck. Usually, only one other choice remains.

Another commonly available milkweed species is the milkweed, Asclepias curassavica. This is an attractive perennial with blooms of deep orange and yellow, but unfortunately, this non-native species can harbor a disease that is affecting monarch butterflies. Search the Web to learn more about research on the disease as well the detrimental effect this non-native species appears to be having on monarch migration patterns.

Articles in general recommend that native milkweed species be planted. But with tropical milkweed and butterfly weed being the two most available choices, it is apparent that there is a need for adding to the public’s knowledge of appropriate native species, and where they can locate them, so gardeners will be able to make wise choices for their home landscape.

Green milkweed (A. viridis) is found throughout Mississippi, and is widespread in the South, although not in our coastal counties. It will grow in a variety of soils and moisture conditions. The species has promise for wider use in the garden. While their green bloom clusters may not be to everyone’s taste, I find them to be very unusual and attractive.

Another species, white milkweed (A. variegata), grows in both sun and part shade habitats. The species is found along roadsides and rocky, sandy woods, open ground, and woodland edges. A visitor reported that she had recently purchased some aquatic milkweed (A. perennis) at a nursery in Louisiana. This species occurs in continually wet areas such as floodplains, swamps, marshes and ditches.

Last Thursday at the 42nd Annual Ornamental Horticulture Field Day in Poplarville at the South Mississippi Branch Experiment Station, I presented a poster which highlights the 15 Mississippi milkweed species. Copies of the poster are available in our visitor center, if you would like to stop by to pick one up. OnSaturday, October 10, from 10 to 11 a.m., this information will be presented in much greater detail in a “Milkweeds of Mississippi” program. Range maps, cultural information, and sources will be included. Call601-799-2311 to register

Several species of milkweed will be available at our Fall Native Plant Sale on Friday and Saturday, October 16 and 17. Knowledgeable individuals, such as the Pearl River County Master Gardeners, will be available to assist you in choosing the plants best suited to your property’s conditions.

The Arboretum is open Wednesdays through Sundays from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and located in Picayune, off I-59 Exit 4, at 370 Ridge Road (south of Walmart and adjacent to I-59). See the website for more information.

FOR FURTHER EXPLORATION: For more information on monarchs and milkweed, see

By Patricia Drackett