Common Milkweed: Uses and Natural Remedies

Learn About Milkweed—an Important Native Plant!

By George and Becky Lohmiller
May 19, 2020
Monarch Butterfly on Milkweed
Seney National Wildlife Refuge

Common milkweed has a long history as a natural remedy—and has many other uses, too! Plus, milkweed is the food of our beautiful monarch butterflies. Learn about 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.

Milkweed flowers. Photo by Lmmahood/Wikimedia Commons.
Milkweed flowers. Photo by Lmmahood/Wikimedia Commons.

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 milkweed plants (Asclepias spp.) are the ONLY food that monarch caterpillars can eat! And monarch butterflies need milkweed to lay their eggs. With shifting land management practices and pesticide use, we have lost much milkweed from the landscape. This has led to a 90% decline in the number of eastern monarchs in a just single decade.

Monarch caterpillar on milkweed

Fun Facts About Common Milkweed

  • 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.


  • 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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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


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?


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

Give them away

You could post an ad, try to give the plants away perhaps? This is sad.

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.


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.

milkweed seeds at RailRoads

Please refrain from spreading seeds near railroads or power lines. There is a reason those areas are free of long-term growth. They use some of the most caustic herbicides available to keep nature restrained from their right-of-ways - and likely does considerable harm to anything which eats the treated leaves before they wither. Anything left growing is chain-sawed.

Or not

Or don’t refrain from planting near railroad tracks. Maybe the short amount of time plants are there is beneficial. Who’s to say? Maybe long term studies are needed. But jumping to the conclusion that planting milkweed near tracks is bad seems a little strange.

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.


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!


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.


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 be self sufficient!

Milk weed

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


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