Milkweed in NZ

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  • #13007


    When is Giant Swan Plant (GSP) NOT GSP? An interesting question…

    I have just learned that there are more than two types of milkweed (or

    swan plant) from Africa here in NZ.

    Some years ago (25?) a Kerikeri lady gave me some seeds of the "Giant

    Swan Plant", which I then began distributing to others to help establish

    more Monarch butterflies. It is hard to distinguish GSP from ordinary

    Swan Plants (SP) as seedlings, and people ask me which are which. I had

    also noticed ‘another’ two milkweeds which look like they’re close

    relatives growing here in Russell.

    Mona Miller in the USA provided me with surprising information from ‘The

    Monarch Butterfly: International Traveler’, 1987, 1998, Fred A.

    Urquhart (Chapter 7, Range Extension, Page 176)

    "Three species of the genus Asclepias have been reported in New

    Zealand: curassavica, semilunata, and tuberosa. Larvae have also

    been reported feeding on three species of Gomphocarpus, a close

    relative of the genus Asclepias: arborescens, physocarpus, and


    A. fruticosus is referred to as the ‘swan plant’ because its seed

    pods resembles a swan; it is grown in many gardens, often for the

    expressed purpose of attracting monarch butterflies."

    In the year 2000 David Goyder, botanist at Kew Gardens, put together a

    paper on the various species and sub-species of milkweed (Gomphocarpus)

    growing on the African continent, of which there are 27! At this time

    the swan plant etc was reclassified from Asclepias to Gomphocarpus.

    Now I have to see if I can identify the ones we’ve got, but it’s a slow

    process as I have to remember some words when describing plant parts -

    it’s a long time since I did School Certificate Biology. For instance

    follicles… I now ecall they are the seed pods.

    I also need a good Latin dictionary. The name ‘semilunatus’ was a

    mystery. It means crescent-shaped (half moon). Arborescens I believe is

    tree-like, fruticosa I think means ‘many fruit’. But why is it used as

    semilunatus sometimes and semilunata others?

    Here’s some excerpts from David Goyder’s paper… I’ve only quoted the

    bits which are useful to us here.

    Habit: Most species are short-lived perennial subshrubs. /G.

    fruticosus/, as its name suggests, is much branched, generally from

    near the ground, whereas species of the /G. physocarpus/ group have

    more scattered branches arising higher up the main stem.

    Follicles: Follicles of the /G. physocarpus/ group are both strongly

    inflated and ornamented with soft flexible processes. In /G.

    physocarpus/ itself, the follicle is more or less globular, and has

    no beak, whereas in /G. semilunatus/ … the fruit is more ovoid.

    /G. fruticosus/ typically has somewhat smaller ovoid follicles with

    an acute apex.

    From my initial reading /G. semilunatus/ also can be distinguished by a

    different ‘corona’. This is part of the flower best seen on the website

    below (note that this is an Asclepia, which is a close relative but from


    Now I realise that I have been sometimes selling G. semilunatus as GSP!

    I don’t think it’s a real issue, though, as people like the plant for

    its vigorous growth, and both species have the similar strong-growing

    habit. Beverley has noticed that the trunks of hers are grey, while SP

    is green.

    Nowhere can I find reference to the fourth plant I have seen, which has

    foliage so dense that you can’t see the branches. The grwoth is more

    upright and overlaid somewhat (which almost makes me feel like it is

    adapting to dry conditions. It almost looks like a Euphorbia (but it is

    not). I cannot recall seeing seedpods or flowers, and the site where it

    was growing is now under development. I will have to go and take another

    look sometime and see if there are some of the plants around the edge of

    the site or growing next door.

    I hope to find a botanist who will work with me on this, so if anyone is

    interested, please contact me privately, Perhaps

    a Latin scholar can explain why the difference in the Latin word for the

    species sometimes, e.g. physocarpUS and physocarpA, semilunata and

    semilunatus. I can’t remember my Latin! If anyone would like a copy of

    Goyder’s paper, please email me.

    Of course, one thing is worth remembering:

    Monarch butterflies and their caterpillars, don’t care much about all this!

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  • #27751


    Hi Jane. gender doesnt refer to the gender of the plants but the gender of the words!



    Reversing adjectives and nouns was no doubt one of my many problems with greek! 😉 So “shrubby healer” would be better? (based on Asclepias = Asclepius = “god of healing”, no comment on whether it actually heals anything)

    Also I found that according to
    “The genus Gomphocarpus is derived from the Greek gomphos meaning a club, and karpos, fruit. The species epithet physocarpa is derived from the Greek physa meaning bladder and karpos, fruit, referring to the inflated, bladder-like fruits.”



    I did botanical latin as a subject and really enjoyed it, still finding it useful today.

    The gender thing didn’t become important unless involved in breeding/hybrid techniques and the like.

    It can be confusing, but is useful for describing a plant if you aren’t sure which plant you have. Using the ‘botanical keys’ is a methodical way to find out 🙂



    Hi Darren, it was really meant for Jacqui to read! I had embedded that bit about Linnaeus in my text and said “but I need some more convincing about the origins of his choice.” I find the parrallels fascinating!
    According to my Oxford Latin dictionary fruticosus is bushy so it really means bushy Asclepias. ie a shrubbby version of the genus. It doesnt quite make sense to translate it as healing shrub because it may not be. Doing that you have reversed the adjective and the noun. Shrub is the adjective, not Asclepias.



    I scraped through the first koine greek course at bible college by the skin of my teeth, and flunked the second one, so most of the above is over my head.

    However wikipedia claims that “Carl Linnaeus named the genus after Asclepius, the Greek god of healing, because of the many folk-medicinal uses for the milkweed plants.”

    And, fruticosa comes from the Latin frutex meaning a shrub.

    So I guess the literal translation of Asclepius fruticosa would be “healing shrub”?



    PS I have just discovered that the website doesnt accept Greek or Sanskrit characters. If anyone wants the correct version of the following text I can email them

    “Perhaps a Latin scholar can explain why the difference in the Latin word for the species sometimes, e.g. physocarpUS and physocarpA” and ?But why is it used as semilunatus sometimes and semilunata others??

    Well I am not a scholar but do have a rudimentary knowledge of both Latin and Greek and to muddle things further for you some of it is really Greek not Latin which is perhaps why you dont recognise it! But it is nearly all in the sex! Combined with a bit of bending!

    Gomphocarpus comes from ??????, (karpos) fruit (m) – a masculine 2nd declension noun thus needs a masculine adjectival form. But of course adjectives have declensions just as nouns do. In the case of physocarpus, it is a 1st declension adj, so the nominative masculine singular ends in -us.

    By the way physos is bladder.

    (Beware of tree names however because Fagus etc are second declension nouns, look like masculine nouns but are all feminine. Quercus however is a fourth declension noun but still feminine. However you can come a cropper with Quercus robur. Robur, robor- is a noun meaning oak, strength and is neuter, third declension. The genitive of that (oak of strength) would be roboris. The adjective from that is roboreus (made of oak)so I cant explain Quercus robur)

    Then there is the comparative version of adjectives, eg fragrans, fragrantior, fragrantissimus, the positive, comparative and superlative forms. Some are irregular, do you want me to deal with those?

    A???????? (Askl?pi?s) is actually Aesculapius in Latin so you can see that in the plant we have the Greek form. Asclepias is however probably a third declension noun (-as ending). These are feminine nouns and are usually nouns of quality. I would guess we are talking here of a plant as medicinal as Askl?pi?s. Physocarpus the adjective has to take the feminine form here applied to Asclepias. So does fructicosus meaning shrubby or bushy. (NB you had the meaning wrong) Hence they are both -a endings.

    An aside
    ( I wondered if it is possible that the Asclepias name for milkweed is an old name. However Mrs Grieve in A Modern Herbal (1936) only refers to the ancient use of the plant in India where she says that A. acida is known as Soma, the personification (my comment – often mistaken) of which was Soma (similar to Dionysus or Bacchus) one of the most important of the Vedic Gods (Actually Soma the God is really Chandra but the association is so close that people have got it confused). The preparation of Soma was a sacred ceremony. (Note – it is yellow) Soma was also one of the regular later Vedic names for the moon. it was drunk by the gods and then filled up in its waning and waxing

    Actually the real story is much more complicated than this and Soma may be other plants including Amarita see discusses the connection between Ambrosia and Nectar and all the descriptions are similar to the Vedic ones. “The concept of an immortality drink is attested in at least two Indo-European areas: Greek and Sanskrit. The Greek A??????? (ambrosia) is semantically linked to the Sanskrit ???? (amrita) as both words denote a drink or food that gods use to achieve immortality. The two words may be derived from the same Indo-European form *?-m?-to- : immortal (n- : negative prefix equivalent to the prefix a- in both Greek and Sanskrit; m? : zero grade of *mer- : to die; and -to- : adjectival suffix). A semantically similar etymology exists for nectar, the beverage of the gods (Greek: ??????, n?ktar) presumed to be a compound of the PIE roots *nek-, “death”, and -*tar, “overcoming”.”

    And in – ” Amrita or Amrit (Sanskrit: ????; IAST: am?ta) is a Sanskrit word that literally means “immortality”, and is often referred to in texts as nectar. The word’s earliest occurrence is in the Rigveda where it is one of several synonyms of soma,…”

    But I haven?t been able to find out if Asclepias itself has clearly been linked to ambrosia. It is difficult to believe that the plant was not known and used in the same way in Greece. Others have drawn attention to the similarity.

    Wikipedia says that Carl Linnaeus named the genus but I need some more convincing about the origins of his choice. )

    There are other declensions of both genera and species names which I can go into if you wish. In the case of third declension adjectives which are often present in botanical names, -is endings, eg horizontalis, the masculine and feminine forms are the same. Arborescens is also third declension and masculine and feminine are the same in both singular and plural.

    You semilunatus is explained by all the above.

    So to summarise, the gender of the noun, the declension of both the noun and the adjective has to be considered, then the case endings, then whether the adjective is comparative. The issue of Greek borrowings of proper names into Latin is a bit complex but there are rules about it

    NB We are using botanical Latin when dealing with plant names and this is not the same as classical Latin. I do not know what rules have been developed to devise names within this framework except by my own guesswork. Some but not all of our native trees have the -us second declension noun form but seem to be the standard masculine gender eg Eleocarpus dentatus,.Podocarpus species. Others such as Nothofagus retain the feminine obviously because they are derived from the Northern hemisphere type. I don?t know why the others are masculine, possibly because there is no precedent and -us endings are usually male.

    Now someone shoot me down



    Amazing read Jacqui. WOW the photo work on the link is stunning!


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