Common Milkweed and Its Natural Remedies

Is Milkweed Poisonous?

George and Becky Lohmiller
Milkweed and Monarchs

Common milkweed has a long history as a natural remedy—and many other uses! Plus, milkweed is the food of our beautiful American Monarch butterflies! Discover this surprisingly useful native plant.

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.

Natural Remedies with Milkweed

Once upon a time, milkweed was commonly used in a number of natural remedies:

  • Native Americans taught early European settlers how to properly cook milkweed so that it 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 may enjoy eating young milkweed sprouts, which resemble asparagus, but only if they are properly identified (there are poisonous lookalikes, such as dogbane) and properly prepared (boiled). Some common milkweed plants (A. syriaca) are mild-tasting while others are bitter (in which case, avoid entirely or boil in several changes of water). If you are new to foraging, have an expert help you identify, gather, and prepare the plant properly before eating. As with any herb, take only a small amount at first, to be sure that you don’t have an adverse reaction.

Find out about other helpful natural remedies.

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.

Is Milkweed Poisonous?

Beneath its dull, gray-green exterior, milkweed is slightly toxic.

  • 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—including humans.
  • Certain insects, including monarch butterfly caterpillars, 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 which means that milkweed is a great plant for butterflies.

The nectar in all milkweed flowers provides valuable food for butterflies, bees and other pollinators. Butterflies don’t only need nectar, but also need food at the caterpillar stage. The leaves of all milkweed species are the ONLY food that the caterpillars of American Monarch butterflies can eat! Due to widespread pesticide use, wild-growing milkweeds are disappearing in places where these butterflies breed. This has led to a 90% decline in the number of Eastern Monarchs in a just single decade.

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Fun Facts About Common Milkweed and Milkweed Uses

  • The stems’ tough, stringy fibers were twisted into strong twine and rope, or woven into coarse fabric.
  • Inside milkweed’s rough seed pods is 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.

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  • 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 paper-making, 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! Common Milkweed seeds grow well in just average soil. Scratch milkweed seeds directly into the soil in the fall. The following summer, seedlings will emerge!

See our full list of plants that attract butterflies.

 

Reader Comments

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Growing milkweed

I grow milkweed on my property and sell the seeds. Even though I am in Arizona, I enjoy numerous monarch butterflies in the fall and have used them to teach conservation to children. Milkweed is indeed a magical plant.

who knew we could have so much fun with milkweed?!

I have plenty of milkweed growing along our road in Paris Ontario, Canada. I brought several plants to school today and we were all fascinated about what they had to offer. We found 8 snails, thought it was amazing to see the white sap drip out and bubble when we tried to open the pods. Then.... the seeds!!! Our Kindergarten students were even more excited to see them tightly folded together within each pod and then separate and fly all over the place, especially on our windy hot day. What a thrill!!!

Milkweed Fun

That sounds like it was a lovely experience for young and old! 

Childrens' (youth) education

Very useful information in identifying our surroundings. Captivated youth and adult attention equally.

Thank you for your support.

milkweed

I discovered two years ago that milkweed was the Monarch butterfly best friend. I use to cut it down. Now I let it grow and and this year there are more than twenty individual plants growing. I will be taking seeds to plant at our cottage to expand the milkweed.

Milkweed

Yes I get lots of milkweed in my yard. Kat

Milk weed seeds

we had a large garden of milkweed but it went away what can I do to try to replant are seed available?

Milkweed Seeds

Yes, you can find milkweed seeds for sale online from both nurseries and butterfly conservation societies. Also try contacting your local Cooperative Extension service, as they may be able to suggest a local seed source.

What ate it?

We've had what we thought was milkweed growing wild for decades (and Monarchs visiting) in the central Adirondacks. This year we arrived to find the tops bitten (cut or whatever) off all the plants. And no butterflies. Any one have any ideas?

Milkweed

I have let several plants keep growing on my property. I haven't noticed more than a couple Monarchs yet, but that doesn't mean they haven't laid some eggs..I hope so..I've always loved the plant anyway..

Milkweed

Live in east meadow,long island have tons of milkweed monarchs lay eggs every year we raise and release the butterflies

Milkweed Plants

Our community garden is full of milkweed due to the scattered seeds from the breeze.I collect seeds for gift giving and rebirth of monarchs by planting seeds in the neighborhood.92102 zip code.

Milkweed in Iowa

We have it on our 8 acres and I am encouraged to see more each year and just let the seeds fly where they want. The horses and deer seem to leave it alone.

Milkweed plants

I found out about ten years ago that milkweed benefits Monarch butterflies. I used to cut them down when cleaning up the lawn. But now I have about twenty plants growing and I just love them. I pluck the pods and save them to plant in other areas of my yard. I've seen many Monarchs and some swallow tails too. I think it is a very underestimated plant.****Western NY

Milkweed

I have several milkweed plants growing in my former vegetable garden. They keep multiplying each year and I don't have the heart to pull them up. Now that I know they're good for monarch butterfly larva I think aIll find a way to let them keep growing and multiplying. I live in Broome County NY

Milkweed in my corner of upstate NY

I have no milkweed in my immediate area. I have purchased seeds and collected MANY pods over several summers. I planted some and scattered it all over our ten acres. Nothing. Why can't I get it to grow here...upstate NY?

milkweed

I had a couple plants start themselves......They would take over if I didn't thin them out! With all the rain here in upstate NY they are flourishing this year.I had 4 monarchs out there today...just love to watch them flit around!

Milkweed & Monarch eggs

I have a few milkweed plants that got pretty big this year here in SE PA...a few days ago, I observed 2 Monarchs flying around them....later I investigated and found at least 20 eggs and 1 small caterpillar....can't wait to watch this process from egg to butterfly.

milkweed & asthma

i try to stay away from milkweed, as it triggers my asthma into really bad attack..

That *%$##@* !! Milkweed

Monarchs also like parsley which I grow for them. Milkweed planted itself in my yard and we thought we'd be ecological and let it grow. We are so sorry, and have regretted that decision for years. EVERY spring I pull the *%&$$##@*!! stuff out or it takes over everything growing. Sorry, Monarchs. You'll have to enjoy milkweed in someone else's yard. It rained all day today. Tomorrow, I'll go out and pull out the latest stalks of milkweed. They appear overnight, and we hate them.

Monarchs and Parsley

Samantha. You more than likely have Black Swallowtails eating your Parsley. I have raised Monarchs for years along with black Swallowtails. Monarchs do not eat Parsley. Please do not pull up your Milkweed. The Monarch is the only insect that migrates from Canada to Mexico for the winter and then heads north in the spring. Because of the lack of Milkweed (because people destroy) it the Monarch migration may cease and the Monarchs put on the endangered list.

monarchs in danger

I live in Delaware and so much of our land is getting developed.The milkweed is disappearing. We see some growing tall and then its cut down. Or weed killer is sprayed on it. People are preferring just grass its sad. Is it environmentally safe to buy milkweed seeds and plant them in our yards or should we collect seeds from native plants and grow them

Milkweed in Mid-Michigan

We do have milkweed plants around the area where I live. The area used to be covered when I was a kid. Many people felt it was a miserable weed and did just about everything to get rid of it. Now Michigan State University Cooperative Extension Service is trying to get people to plant milkweed in unused areas like along the side of roads. Several groups in the area have offered up free milkweed seeds so people can plant them. Free "classes" on how to plant bee and butterfly gardens have also been offered. Check out your local 4-H or Cooperative Extension Service (Usually tied to a University) for materials and/or classes. You can also look up Beekeeping groups as they will have info and/or classes.

As kids, we use to love to "explode" the seed pods and watch them sail with the wind. We would come home covered in them. At the time, life did not get much better.

If there are no classes or readily available information in your area, seek out a Master Gardener and ask if they would be willing to help put together materials and teach you the basics so you can teach others.

Milkwed

I used to take my kids in the fall to an old overgrown apple orchard that was teeming with milkweed. We would crack open the ripe pods and toss the seeds a wound until we were all covered in the silk. It was great fun.
Now I spread the seeds along the RR tracks behind my home in the hopes that it will benefit the monarchs.

Monach laying Eggs:

A Monarch seems delighted to have found a Milkweed to lay eggs on; from one milkweed to the next; she was really enjoying herself; I was too; a beautiful sight; :)

Milk Weed

Growing up in NY milk weed was a common sight. I have not seen a milk weed since leaving NY State decades ago.

Milkweed

I have been spreading the airborne seeds throughout my yard and neighborhood for many years, mainly to benefit the monarch butterfly. We now have plentiful milkweed plants, butterflies, bees,birds visiting. I have been fascinated by this plant for as long as I can remember.

Milk Weed Plants

My wife found some milkweed seeds and planted in yard, Man do they spread. We now have some all around our 3 acre yard. She has been saving seeds from some of them an has a quart can almost full of seeds we will plant next spring in back yard along with as many other seeds we can find to help the Bees an Butterflies and stop mowing it, The Butterflies are so fun to watch, they are so beautiful and come in several colors. We hatched several of them last year as we found them hanging under fences. Our Grandkids loved watching then pupate and dry their wings. Keep on planting flowers is what I say. Thanks, Clyde

Urban Milkweed

Have milkweed all over my Chicago backyard. Mostly common milkweed. It looks like rubber trees . The fragrance of the flowers is delightful. Try to welcome as many monarchs as possible. The pods are saved to distribute seeds and for demonstrations as a Master Gardener.

Milkweed garden

Yes, living in the rural areas of PA, there is milkweed along many roadsides, and I have collected monarch caterpillars and hatched them for years. For 30 years of my marriage, I had a butterfly garden with lots of milkweeds. Last year, I only had one caterpillar from my garden, but the year before, I hatched over 50 monarchs. Last year was a poor year for butterfly hatching. However, I think the monarchs will rebound this year. Sightings began in June!

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