Milkweed – Asclepias spp. (tuberosa, asperula, incarnata, speciosa)
Other Common names: Antelope horns, silkweed, swallow-wort
- Named for the milky secretion found in the stems & leaves
- Source of nectar for moths and hummingbirds
- Sole food source for Monarch butterfly larvae & caterpillar
- Used by humans for food, medicine, fiber
- Thomas Edison tested milkweed latex for making rubber
- Seed pods were used in WWII to fill life jackets
At 3-5 feet tall, these stout beauties grow a thick stem (similar to a cornstalk, but smaller) with a faint covering of hairs, and choose not to waste energy on branch-making, perhaps devoting their growing energy to their spectacular flowers. Leaf shapes vary from narrow to broad, grow opposite from each other on the stem, and in some species, arranged in a whorled pattern. Some species sport a velvety layer of trichomes – leafy hairs on the undersides of the leaves – that help protect the plant from predators.
Milkweed harbors an important protection against herbivorous grazers: a toxic white milky latex circulates through the stem and the leaves and if ingested in large amounts, can be poisonous to humans and grazing animals. Toxicity levels vary among species but narrow-leaved species tend to be more toxic than broad-leaved species. It’s possible that the potential for poisoning of domesticated sheep and cattle has likely contributed to the elimination of milkweed from agricultural fields.
Milkweed flowers are intricately complex and unusual with an addition of a ‘hoods and horns’ floral structure that forms the corona. The five hoods each enclose a horn which is a modified filament of the anther. Some of the horns are visible on some species and nearly invisible on others. Many of the flowers have an incredible and enticing sweet floral fragrance – I can’t resist smelling them each time I am in the garden!
The flowers’ bloom times are dependent on the species and range from April through September. Pollinators such as the larger species of native bees, wasps, and ants cover the flowers, and various milkweed butterflies, moths, and hummingbirds land lightly to gracefully sip the nectar. One of the milkweed butterflies, the Monarch (Danaus plexippus), relies solely on milkweed species for laying eggs and feeding developing larvae and caterpillars.
On a warm summer morning, my blooming milkweed patch is a fascinating study in pollinator and flower relationships…which explains why I have so many photos of the ancient feeding dances of butterflies, bees, and ants. In July, when my milkweed patch is in full bloom, it is hard to keep track of all the flitting about and buzzing busyness of these visitors.
After pollination, the flowers form drooping fruits and like the caterpillars that feed on milkweed, the fruit transforms into a botanical version of a chrysalis: a seed pod (called a follicle) that shelters the paper-thin brown seeds attached to silky and buoyant filaments called coma.
Each pod awaits the proper timing from nature (Is it the changing light? The colder temperatures? The contraction caused by drying?) to split open along its singular suture, releasing the seed parachutes to simply drop below the mother plant or on a windy autumn day, to seek out their own patch of soil to rest during the winter and germinate in the spring.
The Tropical Evolution of Asclepius
Worldwide, the 200 or so species of Asclepius are named after the Greek God of Healing, perhaps under a mistaken identification of a similar plant from the dogbane family. While not exclusive to the New World, the majority of species are found in North America though several species have naturalized in Europe and Asia.
The genus originated in the tropics and adapted its way north so that it is now a hardy perennial plant found in temperate gardening zones 3 to 11, growing in every region of North America. They aren’t picky about where they plant their feet; they can live in sandy, clay, or rocky soil. The diverse number of species live in a corresponding diversity of landscapes: wetlands, along rivers, in the desert, mountain meadows, and other sunny spaces of undisturbed land.
In my region, I occasionally see milkweed in the gravelly ditches along rural roads, unmanaged pastures, and meadows. But they have mostly disappeared from the wilder landscapes.
Is milkweed invasive?
Like some undisciplined gardeners, I succumbed to a seed catalog’s photo of Showy Milkweed (Asclepius speciosa) in bloom. I ordered the seeds and sowed them into the corner of my L-shaped herb/pollinator bed within my fenced vegetable garden. Shortly after that, I mentioned to another experienced gardener that I introduced milkweed to my garden and she responded with, “You may regret that. You know it’s invasive.” The word ‘invasive’ raises a high fear factor in a gardener’s mind; anyone who has spent hours pulling mint, bamboo, or lemon balm from an area meant to be shared with other plants understands the power of that word. I searched online for confirmation of her statement and found an occasional reference to it slowly spreading via its underground stems (rhizomes). Slow spreading is manageable so I anticipated a bit of removal here and there. My milkweed also reproduces sexually via an array of pollinators visiting flowers, moving pollen grains, resulting in a unique seed pod, filled with seeds to be dispersed by the wind.
Milkweed in the Garden
The end result of my planting is a towering 5 x 5 sq. ft. patch of beautiful milkweed plants that send out rhizomes each year to expand the colony. Some I leave and those that pop up in the surrounding paths are easily pulled. It is not regularly watered but still grows abundantly. Given its fragrance, gorgeous flowers, its ability to attract many different pollinators to my vegetable garden, and its multiple uses for human use, milkweed has easily earned its dedicated space.
Due to the continuing decline of Monarch populations, many well-meaning folks put out a call to gardeners to plant milkweed without recommending the importance of planting milkweed native to your region and landscape. Xerces, a non-profit dedicated to the conservation and protection of invertebrates and their habitats, has created several excellent Regional Milkweed Guides and other tools to help gardeners and conservationists select native milkweeds for their regions. Check out their Project Milkweed.
Milkweed in the Kitchen
First, I must confess I am not much of a wild foods eater. I grow cultivated vegetables because that’s what I like to eat. But I am interested in wild foods from a survivalist perspective: when the zombies arrive or the grid goes down or I get lost on a hike, I want to know what is edible and how to prepare it.
Please note that because of the decline in milkweed populations, foraging for wild milkweed plants should be discouraged. If you want to eat milkweed, then grow a milkweed patch.
Warning: Milkweeds contain cardiac glycosides that are toxic to humans when consumed in large amounts. Never consume any part of milkweed raw! The glycosides are found throughout the plant and levels of toxicity vary by species. Thoroughly research and observe the correct ways to harvest and prepare milkweed to avoid the toxic latex.
Indigenous people and wild food enthusiasts select the immature stems and seedpods and plunge them into boiling water for several minutes and then cook them according to the recipe. Some foragers recommend blanching the plant parts several times and discarding the water each time. The glycosides are quite bitter and Euell Gibbons referred to the blanching protocol as “taming the bitterness.”
Stems: In late spring, cut emerging shoots (stems) when they are less than 8 inches high and cook and eat like asparagus.
Pods: Pods must be picked at an early stage (2 inches or smaller) and boiled several times. Cook and eat like potatoes. The pods can also be stuffed like pasta shells and can also be fried like okra.
Flower buds: Harvest when they are just forming and before they turn pink. Cook and eat like broccoli. Most foragers dare you to tell the difference between broccoli and milkweed buds.
Leaves: The youngest leaves (at the top of the growing plant) can be harvested, blanched, and cooked like spinach.
Flowers: If you like sweet floral flavors, you will enjoy Milkweed Flower Syrup. This can be mixed into cocktails, mocktails and used as a topping on baked goods, and ice cream. The recipe is easy and can be found online.
Milkweed as Fiber, Dye & Other Unusual Uses
Like hemp, dogbane, flax, and nettle, the bast fiber of milkweed stalks (stems) has been used to make cord, rope, and fabric for thousands of years. The bast fiber is found along the inner bark once the pithy center has been removed. Making cordage is easy and an interesting craft but there are numerous steps. The bast fiber can also be spun to make yarn.
Some spinners have attempted to spin the coma (the silky filaments in the seedpod) but claim it is too brittle alone but can be combined with other natural fibers. In the past, fibers have been used to make candle wicks.
But those filaments are far more useful in other ways: hollow and coated with natural wax, the buoyant “seed floss” repels water and absorbs oils. During WWII, American children went out to the fields and picked 25 million pounds of pods for manufacturers who extracted the floss and filled lifejackets for the US Navy.
Today, milkweeds are grown commercially and the white filaments are used in floating cleanup kits for oil spills and to make insulated winter garments and bedding like pillows. The pods contain oil and wax that are mechanically extracted and used in commerce. The fat-rich seeds are expeller pressed into a rich oil which can be used as a moisturizer. The defatted seeds are ground into a meal and are used to kill nematodes and armyworms.
My three plant dye books do not list Asclepias spp. as a natural dye for fibers but there are several historical references that suggest milkweeds produce green or yellow dyes. The problem is they do not identify by the species name, nor name the part of the plant used for dye.
Milkweed As Medicine
WARNING: Because of the varying levels of toxic cardiac glycosides in Asclepius species, it’s important to not use milkweed medicinally without careful research and in some cases, supervision by a clinical herbalist.
Many of the milkweed species have both historical and current uses for medicinal purposes by North American Indigenous people.
Here are some of the traditional uses for milkweed species:
Milky Latex Secretion
Topically used for warts (contains asclepain – proteolytic enzyme)
Pleurisy root (A. tuberosa) – cough remedy still used today for pleurisy; listed in the US Pharmacopeia from 1820 -1905 & then in the National Formulary from 1906 – 1936 as a treatment for pleurisy
The root is emetic and cathartic in large doses. Tinctures were prepared as emetics to induce vomiting in case of poisoning.
Milkweed root is considered a diuretic, expectorant, and diaphoretic. Herbalist Michael Moore states it “softens bronchial mucus and dilates bronchioles” and “stimulates urine and perspiration”.
The toxic cardiac glycosides, when properly dosed, can support and strengthen heart health. Again, heed the earlier warning about using milkweed as internal medicine without proper research.
Milkweed & Monarchs
Sadly, in July of 2022, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature declared monarch butterflies endangered, placing them on its Red List of Threatened Species. The primary reason for their decline is the loss of critical habitat.
Monarchs need milkweed to feed their young caterpillars. This relationship has co-evolved over millennia and is highly specialized. Monarch caterpillars have adapted to eat the toxic leaves by developing the ability to sequester the toxin.
Like other butterflies, Monarchs need nectar plants to fuel both reproduction and migration. But milkweed is the only plant that Monarch caterpillars will eat.
Common milkweed (A. syriaca), native to land east of the Rocky Mountains in the US, was called common because its multiple reproductive strategies ensured that milkweed would be found in prairies, meadows, and undisturbed land, making it easily available to the Monarch butterfly. Much of that land has been stripped of its native plants, replaced by agricultural crops and houses with lawns.
“Milkweeds and nectar sources are declining due to development and the widespread use of herbicides in croplands, pastures and roadsides. Because 90 percent of all milkweed/monarch habitats occur within the agricultural landscape, farm practices have the potential to strongly influence monarch populations.
Estimates are that 167 million acres of milkweed/monarch habitat have been lost since the introduction of GMO crops in 1997 and the signing of the ethanol mandate in late 2007.The Monarch Project
Development. Development (subdivisions, factories, shopping centers, etc.) in the U.S. is consuming habitats for monarchs and other wildlife at a rate of 6,000 acres per day – that’s 2.2 million acres each year, the area of Delaware and Rhode Island combined!
Genetically Modified Crops. Widespread adoption of herbicide-resistant corn and soybeans has resulted in the loss of more than 80 million acres of monarch habitat in recent years. The planting of these crops genetically modified to resist the non-selective systemic herbicide glyphosate (Roundup®) allows growers to spray fields with this herbicide instead of tilling to control weeds. Milkweeds survive tilling but not the repeated use of glyphosate. This habitat loss is significant since these croplands represent more than 30% of the summer breeding area for monarchs.
Roadside Management. The use of herbicides and frequent mowing along roadsides has converted much of this habitat to weedy grasslands – a habitat generally lacking in food and shelter for wildlife. Although some states have started to increase the diversity of plantings along roadsides, including milkweeds, these programs are small.
Unfortunately, the remaining milkweed habitats in pastures, hayfields, edges of forests, grasslands, native prairies, and urban areas are not sufficient to sustain the large monarch populations seen in the 1990s.
Monarchs desperately need our help.
How To Help Monarch Butterflies & Milkweed
- The first thing I recommend, even if you are not in a Monarch flyway, is to plant a patch of your native milkweed. You can find out more at the Xerces Society Milkweed Finder. Milkweed supports a diverse number of pollinators and insects. Include nectar plants in your landscape.
- If you live in the eastern or western migration Monarch flyway, educate your neighbors and encourage them to plant milkweed and stop using herbicides. Talk to your local government and state departments of transportation about planting native milkweed and reducing or eliminating herbicide use.
- Buy organic, locally grown food including meat from small farms. The large swaths of agricultural land in the middle of the US primarily raise feed for factory-farmed animals and for ethanol.
- Learn more about this unique plant-animal relationship, and begin to pay attention to other native relationships between species. As the late E.O. Wilson said, it’s “the little things that run the world.“
- Are you familiar with the Spy in the Wild series from the PBS show Nature? They use mechanical animals to spy on real animals. It’s a fascinating series. This 2 minute Monarch video is a sight that few of us will see.
- Check out this 12-minute video about the Monarch butterfly and ancient migration paths.
These links provide an abundance of information:
The relationship between milkweed plants and monarch butterflies offers a classic example of co-evolution, a process of adaptations when species interact. If you want to dive deep into the notion of co-evolution check out the book, Monarchs and Milkweed: A Migrating Butterfly, A Poisonous Plant and Their Remarkable Story of Co-Evolution by Anurag Agrawal:
I highly recommend reading these two books:
Flight Behavior: A Novel by Barbara Kingsolver
From the Publisher:
Flight Behavior takes on one of the most contentious subjects of our time: climate change. With a deft and versatile empathy, Kingsolver dissects the motives that drive denial and belief in a precarious world.
Flight Behavior transfixes from its opening scene when a young woman’s narrow experience of life is thrown wide with the force of a raging fire. In the lyrical language of her native Appalachia, Barbara Kingsolver bares the rich, tarnished humanity of her novel’s inhabitants and unearths the modern complexities of rural existence. Characters and readers alike are quickly carried beyond familiar territory here, into the unsettled ground of science, faith, and everyday truces between reason and conviction.
Dellarobia Turnbow is a restless farm wife who gave up her own plans when she accidentally became pregnant at seventeen. Now, after a decade of domestic disharmony on a failing farm, she has settled for permanent disappointment but seeks momentary escape through an obsessive flirtation with a younger man. As she hikes up a mountain road behind her house to a secret tryst, she encounters a shocking sight: a silent, forested valley filled with what looks like a lake of fire. She can only understand it as a cautionary miracle, but it sparks a raft of other explanations from scientists, religious leaders, and the media. The bewildering emergency draws rural farmers into unexpected acquaintance with urbane journalists, opportunists, sightseers, and a striking biologist with his own stake in the outcome. As the community lines up to judge the woman and her miracle, Dellarobia confronts her family, her church, her town, and a larger world, in a flight toward truth that could undo all she has ever believed.
Chasing Monarchs: Migrating with the Butterflies of Passage by Robert Michael Pyle
From the Publisher:
Pyle’s classic account of discovery along the migration trail of monarch butterflies is part natural history, part road trip adventure
Although no one had ever followed North American monarch butterflies on their annual southward journey to Mexico and California, in the 1990s there were well-accepted assumptions about the nature and form of the migration. But to Robert Michael Pyle, a naturalist with long experience in monarch conservation, the received wisdom about the butterflies’ long journey just didn’t make sense. In the autumn of 1996 he set out to uncover the facts, to pursue the tide of “cinnamon sailors” on their long, mysterious flight.
Chasing Monarchs chronicles Pyle’s 9,000-mile journey to discover firsthand the secrets of the monarchs’ annual migration. Part road trip, part outdoor adventure, and part natural history study, Pyle’s book overturns old theories and provides insights both large and small regarding monarch butterflies, their biology, and their spectacular migratory travels. Since the book’s first publication, its controversial conclusions have been fully confirmed, and monarchs are better understood than ever before. The Afterword for this volume includes not only updated information on the myriad threats to monarch butterflies, but also various efforts under way to ensure the future of the world’s most amazing butterfly migration.
I will end this profile with a wonderfully written excerpt from Pyle’s book, Chasing Monarchs, about the monarchs’ return trip to their North American homes:
Females seeking milkweed, males seeking females, both seeking nectar, the monarchs fly north until they die along the way. Their wings, whose translucent tissues that have carried them two hundred or two thousand miles already, lose their scales and their color. They grow tattered, torn, bush-ripped, bird-struck. The wings still work for flying, if not so fast, efficiently, or high. But a female no longer needs to fly high, to soar or glide great distances. Her only need now is to skip and hop and flutter from field to roadside, bush to herb, to palp the air and the green spring for the next scrap of milkweed on which to deposit her precious eggs. Day after day she drops her load until she has laid some five hundred eggs or more. Or until a spring storm or an automobile or a recently molted mantis lays her to rest. Or until, her abdomen grown greasy with the thinness of its walls, her wings pale rags, she simply wears out.
A few monarchs may reach the state, the county, the meadow where they began, but this must be very rare. The great mass of last fall’s emigrants scatters their last scales to the wind somewhere far short of their birthplaces. It will be up to their offspring to carry on. The eggs – fluted golden ovals – darken in a few days, then give forth comma-sized caterpillars. These consume milkweed flesh until they burst their skins, five times. As they gnaw the host plant, they spill its latex, which will embitter their own tissues. In less than a month the caterpillars have grown as large as a child’s little finger. After the fifth molt comes the jade jewelbox, the gold-nippled smooth green chrysalis. From this inch-long pellet will come a butterfly whose wings span three or four inches. Once they break free of their confining chrysalides, then dry in full turgo, they are capable of rising, soaring, and gliding better than any kite. On the first morning breeze they take wing, rise on the thermals, level out, float, and pump higher, higher, until, hundreds or perhaps thousands of feet in the air, they begin the masterful glide that can carry them many miles. If the air is heavy, they move close to the earth. And so from the millions of shimmering pupae, tucked beneath the leaves of milkweed from St. Augustine to Santa Barbara, will issue the next rush of the sky river, flowing north and east. (pp.2-3)
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