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.

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! 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.

2022_gardening_calendar_spring_ad.png

Reader Comments

Leave a Comment

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

The Editors's picture

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

The Editors's picture

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.

The Editors's picture

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.

Pages