Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) is the best known of the 100 or so milkweed species native to North America. The name "common" fits the plant well because when not in bloom, it goes pretty much unnoticed, growing humbly along roadsides, in fields, and in wastelands.
Beneath its dull, gray-green exterior, milkweed is full of uncommon surprises.
Inside the plant is a sticky white sap that contains a mild poison; its bitter taste warns away many of the animals and insects that try to eat its tender leaves.
- Certain insects, including monarch butterfly larvae, are immune to the toxin. By feeding almost exclusively on milkweed leaves, they are able to accumulate enough of the poison in their bodies to make them distasteful to predators.
Native Americans taught early European settlers how to properly cook milkweed so that they could be safely eaten. (See note below.)
The milky white sap was applied topically to remove warts, and the roots were chewed to cure dysentery.
Infusions of the roots and leaves were taken to suppress coughs and used to treat typhus fever and asthma.
Note: Today, experienced foragers have enjoyed eating milkweed, if it is properly identified (there are poisonous lookalikes, such as dogbane) and prepared (boiled). Some common milkweed plants (A. syriaca) are mild tasting while others are bitter (in which case, avoid or boil in several changes of water). If you are new to foraging, have an expert help you to identify, gather, and prepare the plant properly before eating. As with any herb, take a small amount at first, to be sure that you don't have a reaction.
Caution: Do not get milkweed sap in your eyes (such as rubbing your eyes after touching the sap); wash your hands thoroughly after handling the plant. Also, some people may develop an allergic reaction when the sap touches the skin.
The stem's tough, stringy fibers were twisted into strong twine and rope, or woven into coarse fabric.
In milkweed's rough pods was another wonderful surprise. The fluffy white floss, attached to milkweed's flat brown seeds, could be used to stuff pillows, mattresses, and quilts and was carried as tinder to start fires.
During World War II, the regular material used to stuff life jackets was in short supply, so milkweed floss was called for as a substitute—it is about six times more buoyant than cork!
Over the years, researchers have investigated growing milkweed for papermaking, textiles, and lubricants, and as a substitute for fossil fuels and rubber. Although these experiments were found economically unfeasible at the time, perhaps they should be revisited, given the rising costs of fuel and other materials.
- In current research, a chemical extracted from the seed is being tested as a pesticide for nematodes.
We doubt if this surprisingly useful plant will run out of surprises anytime soon.