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M E E T T H E N A T I V E S
Desert Milkweed: Fit for a Queen
by Kirti Mathura, Master Gardener
Desert Milkweed, Jumete, Rush Milkweed, Reed-stem Milkweed
HABITAT & RANGE
Desert milkweed is often found along desert washes and sandy flats, and sometimes on rocky hillsides in lowlands up to 2,500 feet. Since it will settle into disturbed soils, it can be found along roadsides as well.
The range of desert milkweed extends from western Arizona and southern Nevada, into southeastern California and Baja California, Sonora, and Sinaloa, Mexico.
HISTORY & FOLKLORE
Historically, various Native Americans throughout its range have used desert milkweed as a medicinal plant. Others have considered it toxic. The Seris used the roots for headaches, toothaches and heart problems. Locally, Pimas used it as both a purgative and an emetic, and to alleviate sore eyes and stomach disorders.
Evidently the U. S. Department of Agriculture studied the desert milkweed as a potential rubber source for a time. No commercial use of the rubber was made, however.
Desert milkweed forms a clump of numerous slender, erect, gray-green stems that arise from a woody base. This perennial can reach a height of 3 to 5 feet with a similar spread. Sparse linear leaves, 1 to 2 inches long and 1/16 to 1/8 wide develop on new growth but drop fairly quickly. Broken stems and leaves exude a milky latex containing rubber. Umbels of waxy pale yellow or cream flowers may bloom on stem tips any time from spring through fall. Typical of milkweeds, the seedpods of A. subulata develop to approximately 3 inches in length, releasing tufted seeds when ripe.
Pineleaf milkweed (Asclepias linaria), a relative, is much leafier and typically smaller than desert milkweed. Asclepias albicans (white-stem milkweed) is a bit stouter with thicker, taller stems.
Desert milkweed can be used as an upright sculptural accent in the landscape. Softer-foliaged perennials and annual wildflowers compliment milkweed's form. Producing practically no debris, desert milkweed is perfect for poolscapes. It is tough enough to thrive in dry, hot, sunny locations, so use it in those difficult spots of full sun and reflected sun and heat. Preferring well draining soil, it is quick to establish and very drought tolerant. For a natural look, use desert milkweed when planting wash areas.
And yes, desert milkweed is fit for a queen-a queen butterfly, that is. Typical of milkweeds, this species serves as a nectar source for the adult butterflies, as well as a food source for their caterpillars. The developing larvae will munch on the foliage as well as the buds and flowers. Don't worry-more will develop later! This milkweed also attracts the colorful tarantula hawk wasp.
Other wildlife that may not be so welcomed are the milkweed bugs and aphids, although I've never noticed the bugs doing much harm, and aphid outbreaks aren't usually detrimental. To reduce aphid populations, use a strong jet of water or a soapy water spray. Less frequent irrigation can also make the plants less enticing to aphids.
If you're interested in propagating your own plants, milkweed germinates easily from seed planted in warm conditions.
HEALTH CONCERNS & CAUTIONARY NOTES
The milky sap of desert milkweed can be a skin irritant.
Fegler, Richard S. Flora of the Gran Desierto and Roo Colorado of Northwestern Mexico. The University of Arizona Press.
Mielke, Judy. Native Plants for Southwestern Landscapes. University of Texas Press.
Moerman, Daniel E. Native American Ethnobotany. Timber Press.
Turner, Raymond M., Bowers, Janice E., Burgess, Tony L. Sonoran Desert Plants: An Ecological Atlas. The University of Arizona Press.
Maricopa County Master Gardener Volunteer Information
Last Updated December 18, 2003, 2003
Author: Lucy K. Bradley, Extension Agent Urban Horticulture, University of Arizona Cooperative Extension, Maricopa County
© 1997 The University of Arizona, College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, Cooperative Extension in Maricopa County
Comments to Maricopafirstname.lastname@example.org 4341 E. Broadway Road, Phoenix, AZ 85040,
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