If I were told I could only grow one genus of plant in my garden, I wouldn’t hesitate to choose Asclepias, commonly known as milkweed plants. This is, of course, because of the joy I am filled with raising monarch butterflies. Milkweed is the only host plant of monarchs, so a world without milkweed would be a world without beautiful, graceful monarch butterflies. However, milkweed is much more than just food for monarchs. Throughout history milkweed has been used for many things, and these historical uses have great potential for the future.
Milkweed Plant History
Native to North America, milkweed plants were used by Native Americans not only as a food and medicine, but also for many various things. As a food, milkweed leaves were cooked or stewed like spinach or kale. Its flowers were harvested while still green and steamed like broccoli. Because milkweed plants can cause mild toxicity when ingested raw, they must be cooked before ingestion. When settlers came to the New World, Native Americans taught them how to safely prepare milkweed plants for consumption. It is important to note that when you are handling milkweed, do not to rub your eyes, as the sap in an eye irritant.
Milkweed is high in vitamin C and Beta Carotene. Medicinally, milkweed sap was used to treat warts, wounds, burns, ringworm, and insect bites. Milkweed sap was also reportedly used to stimulate lactation in nursing women. A strong infusion was made of milkweed roots and leaves to treat such ailments as coughs, bronchitis, colds, typhoid fever, asthma, arthritis, PMS, worms and to soothe the nerves.
Milkweed plant history reveals additional uses though. The white, silky fluff attached to milkweed seeds has been found to be six times more buoyant than cork and can provide five times more warmth than wool. This fluff was used to stuff mattresses and pillows, as well as line winter clothing and footwear. The fluff was also spun to make a warm, wool-like yarn. In WWII, milkweed seed fluff was used to stuff life jackets. Pod fluff was also carried as a tinder by Native Americans and they used the coarse, stringy stems to make twine and rope. In more recent times, milkweed has been studied for use as a paper, fossil fuel and rubber substitute. Scientists are also developing natural nematode controls from milkweed seeds.
Besides its usefulness to humans, over 450 species of insects rely on milkweed plants as a food source. While not all these insects are beneficial, many of them are different species of butterflies and bees. Bees and butterflies, including the monarch, favor the nectar of milkweed blooms. It’s very common to see different species of butterflies and bees feeding on milkweed plants at the same time. Milkweed is also the only food that monarch caterpillars eat and a host plant for the tussock moth and ladybugs.
Unfortunately, milkweed is oftentimes considered a nuisance weed because it so easily reseeds itself in the garden. However, it is actually a valuable native plant which sustains many beneficial insects and is being considered for its potential as a renewable resource. Instead of weeding out these lovely important plants, we should be planting them in butterfly friendly gardens.