Common Milkweed and Its Natural Remedies

Is Milkweed Poisonous?

George and Becky Lohmiller
Milkweed

Common milkweed is a useful and abundant plant that has been featured in many natural remedies in the past. However, the plant is mildly toxic, so proceed with caution!

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 full of 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—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).

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.

milkweed-seed-pod-uses.jpg

  • 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. Is there milkweed growing near your home? Let us know below!

Reader Comments

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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.

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!

Milkweed

I have a milkweed vine that grows up the side of my front porch and makes it's way across the porch to the other side. When we go to Weldon Springs during the fall, I always stop at the milk weeds and make sure to scatter the seeds in other areas of the park. We have a lot of butterflies that visit the milkweeds. We have had a clump of Monarch's resting in our trees in the yard because we let the milkweed grow.

We have these on our property in Tehachapi

I have seen these since we moved here, never knew what they were, saw a blooming one, bent over to smell the flowers, WOW, awesome smelling bloom. Love the smell, now I know why the butterflies do also

Planted milkweed

Milkweed plants were very abundant in our fields when I was very young and we always had lots of butterflies on those plants -- smallish orange/black ones. Little did I know at the time they were monarch butterflies. Now, as an adult, I purchased milkweed seeds and have planted them in my flowerbed. Have only seen one monarch last year -- hopefully more will find the plants. We need to provide these plants for the monarchs to survive. The bees love the blossoms, too.

Mass. Field of milkweed

At Appleton Farms in Hamilton/Ipswich, a Trustees of Reservations property ( free to walk in )

Healed bruise

Behind our house there use to be a large untouched field where there were several of these. I will never forget the days when I was younger and I would go out alone to play in that field. One day right at the peak of dusk I remember being curious and pulling one of the pods off, taking the milk and rubbing it over several bruises I had acquired as an active 7 year old. The next day when I thought to look at them the bruises were completely gone. I still remember how shocked I was and to this day I still can't forget this aciddental discovery I made as a very young girl. Makes me sad to think of how the Native Americans discovered healing plants and now most of that wisdom and those healing plants are forever gone.

Milkweed

I have eaten Pink blooming Milkweed from the wild areas near my home. I do read up on wild plants before I try them. I grow Giant Burdock.. Vinegar Plant Lambs Quarter for the herbs and Dandelion as a green, Lovage plant and others.. I am learning to use them as foods and herbs. Its amazing...Want to dig a pond start ; Cat tails,, and try to grow some Talapia for food.!! This would be a dream..to be self sufficient!

Milk weed

Finally found some wild milk weed... spreading the seeds all over my back acre. Central Mass.

milkweed

I always protect these plants around my house to help the butterflies.

Common Milkweed

We have this growing in abundance around us..was not sure what it was until I read this article...thanks...

milkweed sap

When we were kids out playing if we picked a scab or got scratched we always broke a milkweed leaf off and smeared the "glue" on it to stop the bleeding. It worked, never got sick. Our dad grew up in the mountains of s.e. ky told us about it. :)

Milkweed

Our house is on a .20 acre lot, so we don't have a huge yard, but my son refuses to cut the milkweed that grows around the house. He leaves it to feed the monarchs.

Milkweed

It wasn't milkweed floss used to stuff life preservers in WWII but instead CAT TAIL fir.

milkweed

a fiend of mine picked it during the war for the life preservers - maybe they used both?

Milkweed during WWII

I also collected (about 1943-44) milkweed pods to be used as an alternative to the kapok which was unavailable. Our small Iowa school distributed large burlap bags to us to use. A neighbor had an apple orchard full of milkweed plants and he invited us to come collect them. Then my mother hung the bags on the outdoor clothesline to dry before we took them to school for collection. Each child returning a bag was given an Army fatigue jacket/shirt. This was the badge of patriotism to wear to school. My mother wore ours (my 2 brothers & sister) for years later as chore jackets on our dairy farm.

milkweed pods

just arriving in louisville, ky i began working in the yard finding many pods in different areas of my yard. the dog ate some and later threw up. concerned about poison he feels better 12 hours later.he has yet to start eating. he will soon, because he's a pug!

milkweed pods

just arriving in louisville, ky i began working in the yard finding many pods in different areas of my yard. the dog ate some and later threw up. concerned about poison he feels better 12 hours later.he has yet to start eating. he will soon, because he's a pug!

Common Milkweed

Our milkweed flowered, but did not produce any seed pods. Does anyone know why?
We have bee hives in our back yard and have seen monarch butterflies in our yard this summer.

Podding along

Hi, Lee: This could be a pollination or genetic problem of some sort, but more likely than not, it’s just not time for the pods to be fully developed, which can happen late into the fall depending on where you are. Also, FYI, one pod develops only for every 60 to 150 little flowers on the umbel. Thanks for asking!

Milkweed

I remember seeing this milkweed while living up north, but not in any nurseries or fields in N.C. I'd love to have it in my garden along with the other milkweeds I have, any suggestions?

If I pick the pods while they

If I pick the pods while they are green to save the seeds...will they dry properly? Or should I just let them dry naturally on the plant to have viable seeds? My mom has a few plants but she likes to cut them down before winter. I would like to grow my own milkweed using those seeds..so I need an answer soon. Thank you.

Milkweed seeds will not

Milkweed seeds will not mature in a pod taken too soon off the plant. The pod itself is ready for harvest when the seam along it is just starting to open to release the seeds inside. If you squeeze the pod, it should open easily. The pod at this stage might be greenish or brownish. The seeds themselves should be dark, not pale green or white. Store dry seeds in a paper bag in a cool, dry place. When collecting pods, wear gloves--the sap can irritate skin and eyes. Wash hands thoroughly when done.

If this marvelous plant

If this marvelous plant becomes extinct, so will the Monarch Butterfly. It has been around for centuries .

Check your facts. Not only

Check your facts. Not only are the young pods edible and delicious, but so are the young plant shoots and the young flower buds. Milkweed is not poisonous and many people (myself included) eat it regularly. Check out the writings of Samuel Thayer.

Thank you for your feedback.

Thank you for your feedback. We have revised the text to clarify.

milk weed as kids we put the white sap from the stem when we bro

As kids roaming the fields, we broke the pod off and put the white sap on a wart. The wart went away. I had a red wart about 3/4 " long on the forth finger of my left hand, below the second joint. It was raised a bit...it disappeared sometime after that....I did not notice when exactly when. I do not recall anyone becoming sick. We must have touched many kinds of plants as we walked through the tall grasses (1940's) Before sprays and fears of walking across fields.

You may want to update this

You may want to update this important article to mention that Monsanto and other mfrs. of herbicides and pesticides (Such as Roundup) targets milkweed and other beneficial "weeds".

This has caused a dramatic decline of the Monarch population(not just the bees which are mostly what the media is focusing on right now).
Continued use of Roundup and other such poisons will eventually allow us to witness the extinction of these beautiful and much-needed animals.

I never knew just how bad

I never knew just how bad milkweed really was until now,if I only knew then what I know now,because we used to play with it all the time many years ago,an we were lucky to never have gotten sick :)

We played with it too. But

We played with it too. But none of our games included chewing on it. I'd you randomly chewed on a bunch of stuff as a kid, you had more to worry about than milkweed.

Turns out, I have this in my

Turns out, I have this in my backyard. I would always find it interesting when I would pull it open and find what looked to be the softest cotton id ever seen. It would be slightly sticky and so easy to ruffle the ''cotton''. And here I was touching something with poison. It grows every summer but recently its been growing alittle more rapidly than usual.