Milkweed is a common native plant that grows throughout North America. Regarded as a weed by many, it will happily grow on roadside verges, wastelands, farmlands, gardens, and pretty much anywhere the seed blows.
Milkweed is perennial; that means it grows back each year, and when it’s not flowering, it’s a tall, plain green-leaved plant. However, when the umbrella clusters of blooms arrive in spring and summer, it’s a beautiful thing.
Asclepias syriaca is the botanical term for common milkweed, and this is likely to be the one you’ll most often spot.
Not many people are aware that this common little plant is essential to the monarch butterfly and was used in a host of herbal medicinal treatments over the past century. It’s even named after Asclepias, the Greek god of healing, but its common name “milkweed” derives from its milky-colored sap.
Why You Should Grow Milkweed
If you don’t grow Milkweed, or if you tend to dig it up, it’s time to think again.
Milkweed is the favored plant of the iconic monarch butterfly. Monarch caterpillars will only eat milkweed foliage, which is toxic to most creatures. The caterpillars absorb the poison and use it to prevent predation.
It’s a clever trick of evolution, but monarch butterflies are in steep decline today. Have you noticed there were lots, years ago, but now you barely see any?
Experts have recorded a 90% drop in the number of monarch butterflies over the past 20 years. This is due to chemical spraying of glyphosate on our crops, climate change, and habitat destruction. In fact, most of our butterflies and other essential pollinators are under threat with all populations in decline.
Growing a patch of milkweed in your backyard will attract monarch butterflies and other vital pollinators such as hoverflies, wasps, ladybugs, and bees. Without natural pollinators, our food supply is under threat.
Not only will you be saving the planet by introducing some milkweed, you’ll be cutting down on your gardening time.
This is because milkweed also attracts predator insects, such as parasitic wasps and tachinid flies, that control the number of aphids, leafhoppers, and stink bugs without you resorting to chemical pest control. Dot patches of milkweed around your favorite plants to protect them against infestations—milkweed is a wonderful border filler and grows happily in a container.
You won’t need to look after the milkweed. Its leaves taste bitter, so slugs and snails leave them alone.
Your pretty patch of environmentally friendly milkweed will bring a smile to your face without costing a fortune. Research shows that spending time outdoors is beneficial for your health, reduces stress, and promotes exercise. Happy, healthy, and unstressed people live longer.
Aside from supporting our monarch butterflies single-handedly, milkweed has other some pretty surprising uses.
It’s not only the flowers that support our environment. Milkweed pods contain a type of silk that’s used to absorb oils spills in water sources; in fact, the “Silk of America” can absorb four times as much oil as specifically created polypropylene products. Mother Nature really does know best.
Commercial organizations extract milkweed silk for oil spills, but there’s a more common use you probably didn’t know about. Milkweed seed pods are grown on a large scale and are harvested to provide the warm filling of your winter coats and your hypoallergenic pillows.
In fact, every part of the milkweed plant can be used.
Its tough stems were twisted into twine and made into hard-wearing clothes during historical lean times, and the sap was made into a rubber replacement during World War Two.
Beware—Milkweed Has an Evil Twin
You should grow milkweed in your yard, but be careful because it looks very similar to dogbane. Dogbane is also good for the environment, but it can be highly toxic to animals and humans.
How to Use Milkweed as an Herbal Remedy
Milkweed has been used as a medicinal plant throughout history, but it has toxic properties.
Native Americans taught the first settlers how to cook milkweed without poisoning themselves and used it to ease coughs, fevers, and asthma. Native Americans also made poultices from milkweed to help draw poison from wounds and ate it to treat dysentery.
Although milkweed has been a medicine for centuries, it’s essential to use it correctly.
Animals such as sheep and horses have been poisoned by the glycoside compounds in milkweed. The symptoms are weakness, high temperature, loss of muscle control, and difficulty breathing.
There are very few supplements on the market due to its safety concerns. If you want to use milkweed medicinally, be very careful and ask your doctor’s advice.
Here are some of the ways milkweed is used as a natural treatment:
- Wart Removal: the toxic milky sap burns away warts. It takes several applications, but eventually, the wart will turn black and fall off. Milkweed can cause dermatitis and skin burn too.
- Ringworm: its antifungal properties meant milkweed was effective in treating ringworm.
- Lung Health: Native Americans used milkweed to treat asthma, bronchitis, and other breathing difficulties.
- Fevers and Temperatures: milkweed compounds cause the body to sweat, which has been used in the past to promote blood flow and sweat to cool the body.
- Digestion: milkweed is used to stimulate stomach acids and treat constipation.
Should I Use Milkweed?
The side effects of milkweed can be a serious health hazard.
Experts say you should not use it over a long period of time, and pregnant women, nursing moms, people with heart conditions, or anyone taking medication should avoid it entirely.
Unless you know exactly what you are doing, it’s best to leave milkweed in the garden for the monarch butterflies and pollinators. It’s an essential part of the ecological system, and we need more of it. There are plenty of other natural herbal remedies to boost your health.
So get your gardening gloves on, fill your yard with easy-to-grow milkweed, and keep an eye out for those grateful monarch butterflies.