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What is Asclepiadaceae?

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  • Written By: Marjorie McAtee
  • Edited By: W. Everett
  • Last Modified Date: 15 November 2016
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The plant family Asclepiadaceae, also known as the milkweed family, is believed to consist of about 280 genera and 2,000 species of flowering shrubs and herbs. Plants of the milkweed family typically produce five-petaled blooms and white sap. Seeds of these plants typically form in pods, and most plants produce tufted seeds that blow away on the wind when the mature pods open. Members of the Asclepiadaceae family are often cultivated as ornamentals, and some may be familiar as lawn weeds.

Plants of the family Asclepiadaceae are commonly known as milkweeds because they generally produce a sticky, white sap reminiscent of milk. Most species produce five-petaled, symmetrical blooms. In some species, blooms can be quite colorful and attractive. Most plants of the Asclepiadaceae family produce pod fruits, filled with small seeds. Silky tufts on these seeds typically catch the wind when the mature pod opens, spreading the seeds on the breeze.

Some species in this plant family rely on flies to pollinate them. Species such as the carrion flower, or Aclepias Huernia, and hoodia, or Asclepias stapelia, normally attract fly pollinators by excreting foul odors reminiscent of decomposing flesh. These aromatics can attract the flies that pollinate these plants. Other species, however, produce fragrances considered pleasant, such as the Stephanotis floribunda or Madagascar jasmine.

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Familiar members of the Asclepiadaceae family might include the showy milkweed, or Asclepias speciosa. The showy milkweed is considered a relatively common North American wild flower. Native Americans are believed to have used the fibrous stems of this plant to produce rope, string, and fabric. Native peoples may have considered some parts of this plant edible, and it is believed that the sap of the showy milkweed was once used to make chewing gum. It was used medicinally to treat rattlesnake bites, cuts, burns, ringworm, and warts, among other conditions.

Showy milkweed can be found growing wild throughout most of North America. Some gardeners also cultivate this wild flower as a garden feature. Gardeners generally appreciate the plant's purple and pink blooms, and find it hardy and easy to care for. The showy milkweed has a reputation for attracting butterflies and bees into the garden.

Other species of the Asclepiadaceae family, such as the pitcher plant, or Dischidia rafflesiana, and wax flower, or Hoya carnosa, are also popular as outdoor garden plants and indoor potted plants. Many species are hardy and productive colorful, fragrant blooms that draw butterflies, bees, and birds into the garden.

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