A long-lived perennial herb in the milkweed family (Asclepiadaceae), Mead’s milkweed (Asclepias meadii) is a federally threatened species. Mead’s milkweed is found in vegetative communities that are adapted for drought and fire like upland tallgrass prairies and glad/barren habitats. This long-lived herb is threatened by habitat fragmentation and destruction by historic conversion to agriculture and current land development. In 1988, Mead’s milkweed was listed as a threatened species under the U.S. Endangered Species Act. Several strategies exist for Mead’s Milkweed recovery, which include habitat protection and management, increasing size and number of populations, conducting more research, and working with landowners and managers to promote the conservation of this species.
From historical records, we know that Mead’s milkweed formerly occurred in 46 counties throughout the eastern tallgrass prairie region, including Kansas, Missouri, Illinois, southern Iowa, northwest Indiana and southwest Wisconsin. See below for information on its current range.
Threats to Mead's milkweed:
Habitat Loss – Mead’s milkweed is threatened by the destruction and alteration of tallgrass prairie due to farming along with residential and commercial development. Sites known to have Mead’s milkweed were destroyed by plowing and land development.
Habitat Fragmentation – Smaller habitat fragments support lower numbers of plants, and thus, fragmentation may hasten or explain the loss of genetic diversity and failure of this plant to sexually reproduce. Populations with low numbers may not attract sufficient numbers or types of pollinators.
Hay Mowing - Most Kansas and Missouri populations occur in prairie hay fields where mowing typically takes place in late June to early July, which removes immature Mead’s milkweed fruits and prevents completion of the plant’s life cycle.
Mead’s milkweed has a single slender unbranched stalk, 8 to 16 inches high, without hairs but with a whitish waxy covering. The hairless leaves are opposite, broadly ovate, 2 to 3 inches long, 3/8 to 2 inches wide, also with a whitish waxy covering. A solitary umbel (an umbrella-like cluster of flowers) at the top of the stalk has 6 to 15 greenish, cream-colored flowers.
Mead’s milkweed flowers as early as late May in the south through mid to late June in the north. It is pollinated by small bumblebees and miner bees. Young green fruit pods appear by late June and reach their maximum length of 1.5 to 4 inches by late August or early September. The hairy seeds within these pods mature by mid-October. Mead’s milkweed also spreads vegetatively through underground stems called rhizomes, which strike new roots and stems from their nodes.
Mead’s milkweed was extirpated from Wisconsin and Indiana, as of 2003, it’s known to persist at 171 sites in 34 counties in eastern Kansas, Missouri, south-central Iowa, and southern Illinois. In the eastern range, large-scale agriculture has severely reduced genetic diversity and thus sexual reproduction. Mead’s milkweed primarily occurs in in mesic to dry mesic areas and is the habitat is characterized by drought and fire adapted vegetation such tallgrass prairie, but can also occur in hay meadows, and in thin soil glades or barrens.
Although plant communities and land uses differ among this milkweed’s range, Mead’s milkweed occurs with the same common species throughout its range such as big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii) , little bluestem (Schizachrium scoparium), and prairie dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis) which are found in both prairie and glade and barren milkweed habitats.
Mead's milkweed is a long-lived species and given the right conditions, can persist indefinitely.
Mead’s milkweed is a long-lived perennial herb and has a low reproductive rate. A small percentage of flowering plants produce seeds. Seedlings may take 15 years or more to Studies suggest that it may take 15 years or more to mature from a germinating seed to a flowering plant. After maturing, it can persist indefinitely. Given the extremely long life of this species, and that it may take 25 to 30 years for this species to reach reproductive maturity.
Ecosystem with large, flat areas of grasses.
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