Indian Hemp (Dogbane)

Apocynum cannabinum

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Photo of Indian hemp plant
Theodore Webster, USDA Agricultural Research Service, Bugwood.org
Poisonous
Family

Apocynaceae (dogbanes)

Description

Indian hemp, or dogbane, is a shrubby, upright perennial with opposite branches and milky sap. Flowers are tiny, 5-pointed bells, massed in cymes, white or greenish white, attractive to bees. Leaves opposite, smooth-edged, variable, oblong or lance-shaped, hairy or not hairy, with conspicuous petioles (stalks). Stems are reddish and often grow higher than the flower cluster.

Similar species: Spreading dogbane  (A. androsaemifolium) has larger flowers in looser (less dense) clusters. Its flowers are pink or white with red inside and the petal lobes spread. The leaves tend to droop or spread. The two dogbanes live in the same habitats and can produce hybrids that can make identifications tricky.

Size

Height: to 3-4 feet.

Indian_Hemp_Dogbane_Flowers_MDCHQ_8-29-16.jpg

Photo of Indian hemp, or dogbane, flowers
Indian Hemp (Dogbane) Flowers
The flowers of Indian hemp are tiny, 5-pointed bells that are massed in clusters. They are white or greenish white and are attractive to bees.

Indian_Hemp_Dogbane_colony_MDCHQ_2-29-16.jpg

Photo of a colony of Indian hemp
Indian Hemp (Dogbane) Colony
Indian hemp frequently grows in colonies. Most populations consist of one or a few large clones (genetically identical individuals).
Habitat and conservation

Occurs in prairies, glades, forest openings, bottomland forests, margins of swamps, ponds and lakes, banks of streams and rivers, pastures, ditches, levees, roadways, waste places, and other open, disturbed areas. Curiously, most dogbane plants produce few seeds, even though insects avidly visit the flowers. Apparently these plants must be cross-pollinated, but insects don't seem to accomplish this. Most populations consist of one or a few large clones (genetically identical individuals), which develop from the spreading roots.

image of Illinoise Chorus Frog Distribution Map
Distribution in Missouri

Statewide.

Status

Dogbanes (family Apocynaceae) used to be separated from the milkweeds, which used to have their own family (Asclepiadaceae). Recently, the two have been combined. The dogbanes' name (Apocynaceae) was older, so it became the name for both. Botanists have long known the two families were closely related. In about 2000, they announced that DNA evidence showed they were so close genetically that calling them separate families was not warranted. But the two groups do have distinctively separate floral structures, and the milkweeds are considered a unique subfamily or tribe of the dogbane family.

Human connections

Dogbane stems have a tough, fibrous bark that can be used like hemp for making rope, nets, straps, and so on. Native Americans were using it for cordage thousands of years ago. People still use it for making rope and twine, and fabric for clothing.

The milky latex sap which can potentially be used for making rubber.

When bruised, all parts of the plant exude a toxic white juice; the plant has a long list of folkloric medicinal uses.

Ecosystem connections

The toxic juices make this plant inedible to most mammals, but several types of moths eat this plant as caterpillars. They build up the toxin in their bodies and become unpalatable to predators.

The delicate cycnia (Cycnia tenera), a tiger moth, is found wherever dogbane grows in Missouri. Dogbane is also is a larval food plant for the snowberry and hummingbird clearwings, sphinx moths that mimic hummingbirds.