5 Types of Milkweed in Rhode Island: Common Milkweed, Whorled Milkweed, Butterfly Weed, Poke Milkweed, and Swamp Milkweed

In Rhode Island, there are five types of milkweed that contribute to the beauty and biodiversity of the local ecosystems. Common Milkweed, the most prevalent species, plays a vital role in supporting the survival of Monarch Butterflies. Whorled Milkweed, often overlooked, becomes a welcoming host plant for Monarchs during late season. The showy Butterfly Weed not only attracts bees and butterflies but also serves as a valuable host plant for Monarchs. Poke Milkweed, thriving in partial shade, provides a home for multiple butterfly species. Lastly, Swamp Milkweed flourishes in wet areas and is another significant host plant for the beloved Monarch Butterflies. However, it’s important to avoid Tropical Milkweed, a non-native species that can harm these delicate creatures. By choosing native milkweed species, individuals can not only contribute to the well-being of local ecosystems but also entice native pollinators.

Common Milkweed


Common Milkweed is the most widespread and well-known species of milkweed in Rhode Island. It is a perennial plant that can grow up to 6 feet tall and has broad, oval-shaped leaves. The stems and leaves of this milkweed are covered with fine hairs, and the flowers are pink or purple, forming large, round clusters. These clusters attract a variety of pollinators, including bees and butterflies, with their sweet fragrance.


Common Milkweed can be found in a variety of habitats, including meadows, fields, roadsides, and open areas. It prefers well-drained soils and can tolerate both full sun and partial shade. This milkweed is often found in disturbed areas and is particularly resilient in urban environments.

Importance for Monarch Butterflies

Common Milkweed plays a crucial role in supporting Monarch Butterflies throughout their life cycle. It serves as a host plant, providing food for Monarch caterpillars, and as a nectar source for adult butterflies. The leaves of the milkweed contain toxic substances called cardenolides, which are ingested by the caterpillars and make them unpalatable to predators. By planting Common Milkweed, individuals can help create a sustainable habitat for Monarch Butterflies and contribute to the conservation of this iconic species.

Whorled Milkweed


Whorled Milkweed, also known as Asclepias verticillata, is a less common but equally important native milkweed species in Rhode Island. It is a delicate perennial with slender stems and narrow, lance-shaped leaves. The flowers of Whorled Milkweed are small and white, forming clusters at the tips of the stems. Despite its unassuming appearance, this milkweed is a valuable resource for Monarch Butterflies in the late season.


Whorled Milkweed can be found in dry, sandy habitats such as open woodlands, prairies, and dunes. It is well-adapted to sandy soils and can withstand drought conditions. This milkweed species is often overlooked, as it tends to blend in with its surroundings.

Importance for Monarchs in late season

Whorled Milkweed is a welcome host plant for Monarchs in the late season when other milkweed species may be declining. Its availability as a food source enables Monarch butterflies to continue their reproductive cycle, laying eggs and providing nourishment for caterpillars. By planting Whorled Milkweed, individuals can ensure a continuous food supply for Monarchs during their migration and contribute to their survival.

Butterfly Weed


Butterfly Weed, also known as Asclepias tuberosa, is a vibrant and showy milkweed species that adds a burst of color to any garden or landscape. It is a perennial herb with upright stems and clusters of bright orange or yellow-orange flowers. The leaves are long and narrow, and the plant grows to about 2-3 feet tall.


Butterfly Weed thrives in well-drained soils and prefers full sun exposure. It can be found in prairies, meadows, and along roadsides. This milkweed species is drought-tolerant and can withstand hot and dry conditions.

Attracts bees and butterflies

As its name suggests, Butterfly Weed is a magnet for butterflies and bees. The vibrant orange flowers produce abundant nectar, attracting a wide variety of pollinators to the garden. It also serves as a host plant for Monarch Butterflies, providing a vital food source for their caterpillars.

Importance as a host plant for Monarchs

Butterfly Weed is an essential host plant for Monarch Butterflies. The leaves of this milkweed species are relatively low in toxins compared to other milkweeds, making them more suitable for Monarch caterpillars. By planting Butterfly Weed, individuals can create an inviting habitat for Monarchs and contribute to their population growth.

Poke Milkweed


Poke Milkweed, also known as Asclepias exaltata, is a unique milkweed species with its preference for shade and peculiar growth habit. It is a tall, slender plant that can reach heights of up to 6 feet. The leaves of Poke Milkweed are long and narrow, and the stems are smooth and unbranched. The flowers are small and greenish-white, forming clusters at the tips of the stems.


Poke Milkweed is commonly found in wooded areas, along stream banks, and in moist, shady habitats. Unlike most other milkweed species, it thrives in partial shade and is well-adapted to growing beneath the canopy of trees. This milkweed is often associated with mature forests and can be an indicator of high-quality habitats.

Host plant for multiple butterfly species

Poke Milkweed serves as a host plant for multiple species of butterflies, including the Monarch Butterfly. The leaves provide a vital food source for caterpillars, supporting their growth and development. By planting Poke Milkweed in shaded areas, individuals can create a diverse habitat for a range of butterfly species and contribute to their conservation.

Swamp Milkweed


Swamp Milkweed, also known as Asclepias incarnata, is a beautiful milkweed species that thrives in wetland environments. It is a herbaceous perennial with upright stems and lance-shaped leaves. The flowers of Swamp Milkweed are pink to mauve, forming dense clusters at the top of the plant.


As the name suggests, Swamp Milkweed can be found in wet areas such as marshes, swamps, and along stream banks. It prefers moist soils and can tolerate periodic flooding. This milkweed species is an excellent choice for rain gardens or areas with poor drainage.

Host plant for Monarch Butterflies

Swamp Milkweed is a crucial host plant for Monarch Butterflies. The leaves provide necessary nutrition for Monarch caterpillars, ensuring their healthy development. By planting Swamp Milkweed in wet areas, individuals can help create a suitable habitat for Monarchs and contribute to their conservation.

Tropical Milkweed


Tropical Milkweed, also known as Asclepias curassavica, is a non-native milkweed species often grown as an ornamental plant. It is a herbaceous perennial with upright stems and bright orange or red-orange flowers. The leaves are long and narrow, and the plant can reach heights of up to 3 feet.

Non-native species

Tropical Milkweed is not native to Rhode Island or the United States. It is native to the tropical regions of Central and South America. While it is a popular choice for gardens due to its attractive flowers, its introduction can have negative impacts on native ecosystems.

Harmful to Monarch Butterflies

Tropical Milkweed can be harmful to Monarch Butterflies when it is allowed to grow year-round in regions with mild winters. The extended availability of nectar and leaves can disrupt the natural migration patterns of Monarchs and may contribute to the spread of a parasite called Ophryocystis elektroscirrha (OE). This parasite can negatively affect Monarch populations and their overall health.

Why Choosing Native Milkweed Species is Important

Supporting local ecosystems

Choosing native milkweed species is important for supporting local ecosystems. Native milkweed species have co-evolved with native pollinators and are better adapted to local conditions. By planting native milkweed, individuals can provide essential habitat and food sources for native pollinators, helping to maintain healthy and diverse ecosystems.

Attracting native pollinators

Native milkweed species have evolved to attract and support native pollinators, including bees, butterflies, and other insects. Their flowers provide nectar and pollen resources, serving as valuable food sources for these pollinators. By choosing native milkweed, individuals can help attract a wide variety of native pollinators to their gardens, contributing to the overall health of the ecosystem.

In conclusion, Rhode Island is home to a diverse array of milkweed species, each with its unique characteristics and importance for native pollinators. Common Milkweed, Whorled Milkweed, Butterfly Weed, Poke Milkweed, and Swamp Milkweed all play vital roles in supporting Monarch Butterflies and other butterfly species. By choosing native milkweed species and creating suitable habitats, individuals can make a positive impact on local ecosystems and contribute to the conservation of these beautiful and essential pollinators.

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