Milkweed

Milkweed plant, growing to save the monarch population, foraging and identification, medicine, fiber for rope, and other uses

(Asclepias syriaca)

“ass-KLEE-pee-us  sihr-rye-AK-ah”

Monarchs are the most recognizable species of butterfly here in North America. For a lot of people, it’s the only species that they can actually name. Yet, at the rate things are going it may end up that my grandchildren could possibly go their whole lives without seeing one monarch in the wild. Which would suck, because pollinators mean food, so between the monarchs and the bees (and other pollinators threatened by the same things) my poor grandkids are probably also going to be hungry.

Over the last decade, the population has declined by 90% due to a shortage of milkweed. Milkweed is the only plant that monarch caterpillars can eat, and without milkweed there will be no monarchs. The loss of milkweed has been attributed to herbicides sprayed on chemical resistant GMO crops, the crops have been designed to withstand stronger chemicals so that more weeds are killed without damaging the crop. Crops aren’t the only reason though, homeowners removing this “weed” from their lawns and loss of land to grow upon due to urban sprawl are also causes.

This doesn’t only suck because of butterflies, I actually got a little upset because I’ve always wanted to try milkweed pod pickles, or to use them as a spinning fiber. So, I’m going to plant milkweed. I don’t have a garden, or a yard, so I’ll be sneaking into untended areas and growing them there (shhh). I may also get my apartments to let me slip a few in to the office gardens.

I ordered Asclepias syriaca (or “common milkweed”) for planting, mostly because they are the most edible and I figured I’d get to know them better, seeing as how I was planning on talking about wild foods on this blog. It also happens to be native to my area. Thankfully, common milkweed turned out to be a good choice for another reason, the tropical milkweed (most available to gardeners) may be endangering monarchs by damaging their migration patterns, as well as hosting a parasitic protozoan. This is prevented by using milkweed species that die back in the fall, forcing the monarchs to migrate to find food, as well as killing any protozoan colonies before they spread. Next time I do this though, I’ll go with a variety of species found in my area.

Now I’m going to write this as a wild food page, but I’m only going to try a few pickles myself (just once to say I did it) and harvest the plant for fiber at the end of the growing season when it dies back . Other than that, I’ll be taking seeds to keep the local population on the rise as much as I can (not cuttings to avoid that parasitic protozoan thing). Seeing as how this is a threatened plant, I don’t recommend going out there and pulling up shoots in the spring, or taking all the pods for pickles so there are no seeds left to help it spread.

By the way, milkweed does not only feed monarchs. They also feed other butterflies and bees, as well as other insects (including hummingbird moths, which I actually enjoy seeing almost as much as real hummingbirds). So if you’re worried about our bee population, this plant will help you do your part.

Cautions: There are some toxic members of this family, know what you are foraging. Don’t eat milkweeds with skinny leaves, and boil edible parts until they are no longer bitter, change the water and boil again for good measure. If you have the sap on your hands, keep it away from your eyes. The sap contains latex, do not touch this plant (or consume it) if you are allergic. The plant contains cardioactive glycosides, they have a stimulating effect on the heart. Don’t use if you have high blood pressure or if you have a heart condition. Avoid use for children under three, if pregnant or breastfeeding, or for seniors.

 

medical herbalismHerbalism Basics ~ Herbalism Terms

Anodyne, anti-wart, diaphoretic, diuretic, emetic, emmenagogue, expectorant, purgative, stimulant

The sap is said to cure warts if applied regularly over a few weeks. Dandelion’s sap works in a similar manner, but milkweed is said to be more powerful. It may also cure ringworm, and may alleviate bee sting.

The root is used to treat dropsy (edema, or swollen limbs) and painful menstruation. It is also said to be contraceptive, though seeing as how it promotes menstruation maybe it was causing miscarriage. It is said to be excellent for treatment of any lung disorder, and the one to turn to when more mild herbs have not been shown to be effective. It also brings on a sweat that is said to help dispel fever. The same diaphoretic properties help increase circulation to the limbs. The root can also promote drainage of the lymph nodes when they are swollen. The root may promote stomach acid for those with poor enzyme activity, and should certainly alleviate chronic constipation. However, it should be avoided in people with sensitive digestive tracts, it might be too strong.

Because the root stimulates sweat, circulation, lymph system, digestive system, kidneys, and liver it is said to be a very detoxifying herb. People with rheumatic conditions may find relief through this detoxifying action.

A cooked mash of the stems is said to alleviate rheumatic joint pain when applied as a poultice.

Preparation and Dosage: Seeing as how this is an endangered plant, and how it has reports of being toxic (though there seems to be argument about that in this species) I don’t think I would take this as a medicine. Other than the sap, the medicine is generally found in the root. This would mean that harvesting would damage the local supply. If you are really determined to try this as a medicine, please grow your own supply for it, and try to propagate it and use the surplus. Be very careful, I’m not finding particulars on dosage and an overdose could cause a dangerous rise in blood pressure and possibly result in a coma. One source said “tiny doses like as with foxglove”, but they were unclear on which species that was for. I’ve heard that the root can be dried and used in infusions, or it can be tinctured.

 

magical herbalism

Energy
Masculine
Elements
Fire
Planets
Mars, Moon
Signs
Scorpio

Healing, protection, transformation, wishes.

The moon association would imply a feminine gender, and probably a water element, but I’m not finding many sources on associations for this exact species. The circulatory stimulation would agree with Mars, and the diuretic action would agree with the Moon. One source said the milk white sap implied the moon, as well as the white fluff. The pods might be seen as crescents, or they might be seen as horns. The flowers make me think of Venus more than anything else, though they look protective with their star shape.

Used in healing preparations, and as protection during surgery. The scientific name comes from the Greek god of healing, who learned his art from Chiron. The Iroquois used this to prepare themselves for battle with witches. If you catch a seed and let it go, you will be granted a wish. It is said that rubbing the juice on the third eye of a child will help to enhance their creativity and spirituality. It also might make them see fairies, or it might make them break out into a rash… one source said perhaps just rub the leaf over the third eye to avoid this.

The milkweed is strongly associated with the monarch, and monarchs are a symbol of transformation. Therefore, use milkweed in meditations that draw transformation to you. The seeds may be also used in meditations for letting go, or transformation of thought due to the way they ride on currents of air. The strong healing associations and protective qualities may make this a great herb to overcome the effects of trauma.

Use the flowers in summer solstice celebrations, and the fluff at the fall equinox.

 

herbalism in the kitchenHealthy Cooking Basics

As stated, this plant should be boiled. Bring it to a boil, then drain and change the water, then boil again. Do a taste test, if the plant is bitter then repeat the water change and boiling until no trace of bitterness remains. A pinch of soda in the water may help soften plant material, especially if cooking young pods. If you are using young shoots, the fuzziness can be rubbed off prior to cooking.

Well, that’s the commonly recommended method anyway. I’m starting to think that if my milkweed doesn’t pass a field taste test, it may be more suitable to use in rope or paper making instead, or just left for the butterflies.

If you have a sweet milkweed, try the flowers in fritters. Flower buds and clusters can be deep fried, and can be similar to okra when prepared like broccoli. The very young pods are supposed to be able to be pickled like capers, though I’m thinking I might try fermenting the buds. I have a suspicion that’s actually what the source was referring to, as a spray of many flowers makes just one seed pod, collecting tiny seed pods would require a garden full of milkweed. Perhaps they were thinking the cluster of unopened buds was seed pods. They are more shaped like capers anyway.

The leaves of the same sweet plant can be sautéed, and the shoots can be cooked like asparagus. Young leaves and small pods may make a nice stir-fry.

The parboiled young pods (don’t forget the pinch of soda) may also be then dipped in batter and fried.

 

herbal identification for foraging wild foods and medicineForaging Basics ~ Pictorial Guide to Identification

A. syriaca might possibly cross-pollinate with more bitter, potentially toxic local milkweed species. Green Deane has noticed that in areas where it is supposedly not bitter, it is the only species around. He thinks that were it is reported to be bitter, this may indicate it has been cross-pollinated with toxic species. He also says that milkweed should be prepared carefully, boiling and dumping the water should remove toxins, but if your milkweed tastes bitter at all this needs to be done again until all bitterness has been removed.

A. syriaca is the most common milkweed species, but you should be aware of how to know exactly which species you have. Deane mentions he would not try any milkweed with skinny leaves. One source says that milkweed should actually taste sweet, not bitter at all, and misconceptions about bitterness are related to not identifying the plant properly. A small field taste test can reveal bitterness.

Identification: Native to Central and Eastern North America. Look for it in full sun, in wide open areas during the summer months.  A. syriaca grows from three to six feet tall. Milkweed tends to grow without branches. The entire plant has a fuzzy appearance.

Leaves are opposite, fuzzy, and have smooth margins. Leaves are thick and wide but not succulent, and oblong or ovate in shape with short stalks. The leaves tend to be four to nine inches long, and two to four inches wide. The broken stalk or leaves emit a milky white sap.

Identifying milkweed for food, medicine, fiber, or conservation efforts. Gardening tips, and a plethora of information.  Read about it at www.dryadintheelm.com

Common milkweed has pink flowers, with five densely flowered drooping umbels. The flowers have five petals, and below them is a separate group of petals that are slightly darker pink, these droop to the stem and make it look like the five petaled flower is wearing a skirt.

Identifying milkweed for food, medicine, fiber, or conservation efforts. Gardening tips, and a plethora of information.  Read about it at www.dryadintheelm.com

It has wide teardrop shaped seed pods that are rough and fat, with a somewhat spiny appearance. Seeds have a silky length of fiber attached to one end, designed to carry the seeds along the wind. The seeds themselves are about 1/4 an inch long, thin and flat. They are almost papery, and the center is surrounded by a thin wavy edge.

Shoots can be gathered in spring, leaves in the summer, and seedpods in the fall.

Lookalikes: Green Deane points out that Asclepias syriaca is the species to forage (some members of the milkweed family are actually toxic, and it may be mistaken for the poisonous plant dogbane. According to Deane, the milkweed has hairy undersides to the leaves and hairy stems, while dogbane does not (including in the young shoots). Milkweed has prominent veins and the leaves squeak when rubbed together, while dogbane’s leaf veins are not so distinct and it does not squeak. Milkweed stems are hollow, while dogbane has solid stems. Dogbane leaves are larger at the top of the plant, while milkweed leaves grow smaller as the stems grow longer.

It may also be confused with the poisonous butterfly plant, which does not leak the milky white sap.

There is a milkweed vine that is edible, but can be confused with the toxic Honeyvine. Neither of these are the species I’m focusing on, so I’ll send you on to someone else if you’re curious.

 

growing medicinal, magical, and culinary herbs

USDA zones
3 to 8
Light
full sun to light shade
Soil
light  to medium
pH
acid to alkaline
Moisture
dry to moist, well drained
Life Span
perennial

This plant may be propagated by seed or rhizome cuttings. Harvest seed or divide the root in the late fall, and make sure rhizome cuttings have at least one bud. Plant rhizome cuttings in the fall. Seeds need cold stratification. Some sources say they need scarification as well.

This plant may become invasive, plant away from cultivated gardens or somehow contained. In permaculture, it may be a good plant to put in your zone 4 area. If you want it closer to your home, it may be good in a raised bed where the rhizomes won’t spread or at the edges of your yard away from your vegetable patch. Alternately, if you wish milkweed to draw pollinators to your garden plants, you can try it in a container placed in the beds.

While this will grow in a wide variety of conditions, if you wish to grow it for the fibers you will get the best results with a high quality soil without too much sand or clay that is well fertilized. Otherwise fibers may be brittle or weak. Use well drained soils, and wet climates do not contribute to good fiber quality. Overcrowding may provide a more flexible fiber, and less woody stems.

 

miscellaneous uses of herbs and foraged plants

Milkweed fibers are something I really look forward to working with. It’s a rough fiber, but is said to be resistant to mildew. This is the kind of thing you can use as twine, not really sweater material. I hear you gather the stalks at the end of the growing season, and you let them dry. I recall one book recommending letting them dry in the grass, where the dampness in the morning may help the fibers soften.

You then release the fibers by twisting the stems. I’ve heard several sources say that you then roll them on your thigh to form the cord, though that would be a single ply and not very sturdy. That would also be infuriatingly slow, though perhaps fun to show kids. I imagine milkweed can be processed similar to flax, and then likely spun in a similar manner. The final result would be an excuse for me to finally get a lucet.

Some sources say the latex content in the sap may interfere with processing the fibers, and this may be eased by soaking the whole stems in water for eight to ten days, no more, no less. A light boiling in mildly soapy water may help fully clean the fibers from stem and sap residue.

It would probably be one of those labor intensive for not a lot of end result kind of tasks, the type of thing that makes me appreciate exactly why people used to only own one or two outfits or pair of shoes. In order for someone to make a living doing this type of thing, the resulting product would be hella expensive.

Latex is supposed to be able to be distilled from the sap. However, the yield is very low.

The fluff has been used to stuff life jackets, and I’ve seen research into using it to clean up oil spills. The fluff can also stuff pillows, and is supposed to be water repellant. If it seems like a lot of collecting for stuffing a pillow, well if you’re collecting seeds to spread around for the butterflies, you’ll be pulling that floss off anyway. Keep it somewhere, maybe someday you’ll have a pillow. It’s also been used in paper making.

In France, the floss was spun to make a cloth more luxurious than silk, and it took dyes well. However, other reports say that the fiber is brittle and does not take dyes well. Must be French magic. The same guy said pillows made with it were lumpy. Maybe he just had cranky plants.

relevant posts

Save the Monarchs: Planting and Using Milkweed

 

links from around the web

For the butterflies, Monarch Watch has a variety of resources.

Gotta love Eat The Weeds. Green Deane’s the man.

Here’s another interesting page focusing on the foraging and cooking of milkweed.

Here’s a great article about the decline of monarchs, it has wonderful photos of trees covered in monarchs during the migration season.

Someone got lazy and decided to publish their notes. I feel ya. We all get busy sometimes.

Here’s a big ol’ summary of the literature on milkweed, published in 1943. This is where I got my growing tips for the best bast (stem) fibers and some of the floss information. If you are interested in large-scale production for fiber, rubber, or paper, this is a good read.

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