Asclepias L. (1753), the milkweeds, is a genus of herbaceous perennial, dicotyledonous plants that contains over 140 known species. It previously belonged to the family Asclepiadaceae, but this is now classified as the subfamily Asclepiadoideae of the dogbane family Apocynaceae.
Pollination in this genus is accomplished in an unusual manner. Pollen is grouped into complex structures called pollinia (or "pollen sacs"), rather than being individual grains or tetrads, as is typical for most plants. The feet or mouthparts of flower visiting insects such as bees, wasps and butterflies, slip into one of the five slits in each flower formed by adjacent anthers. The bases of the pollinia then mechanically attach to the insect, pulling a pair of pollen sacs free when the pollinator flies off. Pollination is effected by the reverse procedure in which one of the pollinia becomes trapped within the anther slit.
Asclepias species produce their seeds in follicles. The seeds, which are arranged in overlapping rows, have white silky filament-like hairs known as pappus, silk, or floss. The follicles ripen and split open and the seeds, each carried by several dried pappus, are blown by the wind. They have many different flower colorations.
Milkweeds are an important nectar source for bees and other nectar-seeking insects, and a larval food source for monarch butterflies and their relatives, as well as a variety of other herbivorous insects (including numerous beetles, moths, and true bugs) specialized to feed on the plants despite their chemical defenses.
Milkweeds use three primary defenses to limit damage caused by caterpillars: hairs on the leaves, cardenolide toxins, and latex fluids. Data from a DNA study indicate more recently evolved milkweed species use less of these preventative strategies, but grow faster than older species, potentially regrowing faster than caterpillars can consume them.
The milkweed filaments from the follicles are hollow and coated with wax, and have good insulation qualities. During World War II, over 5,000 t (5,500 short tons) of milkweed floss was collected in the United States as a substitute for kapok. As of 2007, milkweed is grown commercially as a hypoallergenic filling for pillows. A study of the insulative properties of various materials found that milkweed was outperformed by other materials in insulation, loft, and lumpiness, but scored well on various metrics when mixed with down feathers. 
Milkweed latex contains about 1 to 2% latex, and was attempted as a source of natural rubber by both Germany and the United States during World War II. No record has been found of large-scale success.
Milkweed also contains cardiac glycoside poisons which inhibit animal cells from maintaining a proper K+, Ca+ concentration gradient. As a result many natives of South America and Africa used arrows poisoned with these glycosides to fight and hunt more effectively. Milkweed is toxic and may cause death when animals consume 10% of their body weight in any part of the plant. Milkweed also causes mild dermatitis in some who come in contact with it.
In a garden, milkweed flowers will produce a strong and beautiful fragrance that will be as powerful as in any other flower.
Some Asclepias species:
Formerly placed here
Some species formerly classified under the Asclepias genus include:
- Calotropis gigantea (L.) W.T.Aiton (as A. gigantea L.)
- Calotropis procera (Aiton) W.T.Aiton (as A. procera Aiton)
- Cynanchum louiseae Kartesz & Gandhi (as A. nigra L.)
- Cynanchum thesioides (Freyn) K.Schum. (as A. sibirica L.)
- Funastrum clausum (Jacq.) Schltr. (as A. clausa Jacq.)
- Gomphocarpus cancellatus (Burm.f.) Bruyns (as A. cancellatus Burm.f. or A. rotundifolia Mill.)
- Gomphocarpus fruticosus (L.) W.T.Aiton (as A. fruticosa L.)
- Marsdenia macrophylla (Humb. & Bonpl. ex Willd.) E.Fourn. (as A. macrophylla Humb. & Bonpl. ex Schult.)
- Marsdenia tenacissima (Roxb.) Moon (as A. tenacissima Roxb.)
- Matelea maritima (Jacq.) Woodson (as A. maritima Jacq.)
- Sarcostemma acidum (Roxb.) Voigt (as A. acida Roxb.)
- Sarcostemma viminale (L.) R.Br. (as A. viminalis (L.) Steud.)
- Telosma cordata (Burm.f.) Merr. (as A. cordata Burm.f.)
- Telosma pallida (Roxb.) Craib (as A. pallida Roxb.)
- Tylophora indica (Burm.f.) Merr. (as A. asthmatica L.f.)
- Vincetoxicum hirundinaria Medik. (as A. vincetoxicum L.)
- Vincetoxicum pycnostelma Kitag. (as A. paniculata Bunge)
- Xysmalobium undulatum (L.) R.Br. (as A. undulata L.)
- Everitt, J.H.; Lonard, R.L., Little, C.R. (2007). Weeds in South Texas and Northern Mexico. Lubbock: Texas Tech University Press. ISBN 0-89672-614-2
- "Taxon: Asclepias L.". Germplasm Resources Information Network. United States Department of Agriculture. 2003-03-13. http://www.ars-grin.gov/cgi-bin/npgs/html/genus.pl?1031. Retrieved 2010-06-27.
- Ramanujan, Krishna (Winter 2008). "Discoveries: Milkweed evolves to shrug off predation". Northern Woodlands (Center for Northern Woodlands Education) 15 (4): 56.
- Evangelista, R.L. (2007). "Milkweed seed wing removal to improve oil extraction". Industrial Crops and Products 25 (2): 210–217. doi:10.1016/j.indcrop.2006.10.002.
- Asclepias subverticillata (A. Gray) Vail, USDA PLANTS
- "GRIN Species Records of Asclepias". Germplasm Resources Information Network. United States Department of Agriculture. http://www.ars-grin.gov/cgi-bin/npgs/html/splist.pl?1031. Retrieved 2011-02-22.