Milkweed: A Plant That Breaks the Weed Stereotype

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Story at-a-glance

  • Milkweed has a long history of usage and is actually known to help alleviate certain skin and lung conditions. It’s also the only food source of the monarch butterfly, an important pollinator
  • Milkweed can be supplemental to your health, but it can also be dangerous to animals and humans when consumed incorrectly

Weeds are plants that grow in a location where they’re not supposed to. They can propagate very quickly and grow in various environments, which allows them to take over a particular garden or farm. Due to these characteristics, weeds are taken out immediately whenever they appear.1

But according to Ralph Waldo Emerson, a weed is simply a plant whose virtues have not been discovered,2 and this rings true for milkweed (Asclepias syriaca), a plant native to North America.3 It’s commonly found growing along roadsides and ditches, but as you’ll learn soon enough, you’ll understand why it should not be typecast as a weed.4

Health Benefits of Milkweed

Milkweed has a long history of usage, and a lot of what we know about it today comes from Native Americans. The plant has been known to help with the following aspects:5,6

Skin: Milkweed can promote healing of warts and ringworm. It can be also used against snake bites on certain cases.

Lungs: Milkweed’s reputation largely lies in its ability to help with lung conditions. It may help relax the bronchioles, reduce spasms and liquefy the mucus in the lungs. As such, it’s used to help various breathing conditions such as asthma, bronchitis, pleurisy and tuberculosis.

Stomach: Digestive problems such as diarrhea and constipation may be managed with milkweed.

Other uses: Taking a milkweed infusion may help bring down your temperature when you have a fever by increasing perspiration.7 Snow blindness, sore muscles and rheumatism may also be alleviated using milkweed.8

Furthermore, planting milkweed in your garden can benefit insects, such as the monarch butterfly. It also attracts buckeyes, bumblebees, eastern tiger swallowtails and honeybees.9

Different Uses of Milkweed

Milkweed is primarily known as the only food source for monarch butterflies, a butterfly species known for the massive distances they travel during migration to escape winter. North American monarchs in particular, can travel up to 3,000 miles and stay in California and Mexico.10

To help protect monarch butterflies and improve their chances of survival, you can plant milkweed in your garden or farm. You may use the Milkweed Seed Finder to locate seed suppliers in your area. If you opt for starter plants, make sure they are not pre-treated with pesticides.

Small creatures rely on milkweed as well, such as the eponymous red milkweed beetle, which is known for its striking lipstick-red color, black spots and long antennae.11 Another example is the milkweed bug, which has orange and black markings.12 Certain aphids, ladybug beetles and ants also derive nutrients from milkweed.13

Humans have also benefitted greatly from milkweed throughout history. Native Americans taught the first European settlers how to cook the plant properly to avoid becoming poisoned. The sap was applied topically to help remove warts, and the roots were chewed to help ease dysentery. Infusions of the roots and leaves were also made to help with coughs, fever and asthma.14

Milkweed has shown surprising potential in the realm of textiles as well. It is known for its strong fiber, which was used to make bow strings, threads, fishing lines and belts. However, it was during World War II that milkweed shone the brightest. It was used as the filler in life vests and flight suits to help keep countless soldiers and sailors survive at sea. To make the flotation devices, hollow milkweed fibers were coated in wax, making them waterproof and buoyant.15

Growing and Storing Milkweed in Your Home

Weeds are hardy plants that can grow almost anywhere, and milkweed is no exception to this trait. You can place it indoors, or sow it directly outside. However, be sure to have ample space wherever you plant them, because they can grow anywhere from 2 to 6 feet. Once it’s fully matured, it develops a thick, green stalk, and the flower can have a pink, purple or orange color.16

To begin growing milkweed, place seeds in a pot or a garden plot during the fall, just before a killing frost arrives. This allows the seeds to germinate naturally during the cold season, so they can begin to sprout when spring comes. Milkweed seeds need cool soil to germinate properly, and using the frost to your advantage is an economical method.17 After germination, the seedlings will start to appear within a few weeks.

Throughout this time, keep the soil damp to provide hydration. Be careful not to overwater the soil, as this can cause fungus to grow on the budding plants. Make sure that they are placed in an area with lots of sun as well.18

Once the milkweeds have fully grown, you only have a small window of time to harvest high-quality seeds. Once the pods begin to break, harvest them right away and dry them in an open area for a day or two, then remove the silk-like material by hand. Store the seeds in an airtight container and place them in a dry location or the refrigerator.19 If you’re going to eat the pods, harvest them when they are less than two inches, then repeat the same drying process.20

Cooking With Milkweed: Sautéed Milkweed Pods

You can try this recipe as a good way to introduce yourself to milkweed. It contains a mixture of various spices to create a great snack that can be shared with your friends during a party or a gathering.21

Sautéed Milkweed Pods

  • 2 dozen whole milkweed pods, each less than 2 inches in length
  • 1 to 1 1/2 cups of coconut flour
  • 2 tablespoons of raw, grass fed butter
  • 1 tablespoon of organic coconut oil
  • Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

Cooking Directions

  1. Place the pods in a 4-quart saucepan and cover with cold water. Boil the pods for 10 minutes, then drain. Repeat the process once more.
  2. Place 1 cup of flour in a plastic bag. Place six pods in the bag and shake to coat them. Take the pods out and spread them on a towel. Repeat the process, adding more flour as necessary until all of the pods are coated.
  3. In a large skillet, melt the butter in the oil until it foams. Add the pods and allow them to cook undisturbed for three to four minutes until the undersides get a bit of a golden crust. Stir and cook another three to minutes until they become tender.
  4. Season with sea salt and pepper. Serve warm.

Note: This recipe can make four servings.

Beware, Milkweed Contains Dangerous Toxins

Milkweed can be supplemental to your health, but it can also be dangerous to animals and humans when consumed incorrectly. The poisons in the plant act as a defense mechanism against predators out in the wild to prevent them from eating it.22 Currently, 76 species of milkweed are considered poisonous, but not all of them are equally toxic. All of them contain cardiac glycosides, a group of toxins that are known to produce the following symptoms when consumed in large amounts:23

Dilated pupils

Weak pulse

Loss of muscle control

Respiratory paralysis

Violent spasms

Elevated temperature

Weakness

Gastroenteritis

According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), farm animals are the most common victims of milkweed. Livestock such as sheep, cattle and horses may consume the plant during times when quality forage is scarce. If you’re a rancher, take care in removing milkweed around your land to protect your flock.24

To make milkweed safe for human consumption, it needs to be boiled in hot water several times (make sure to discard the used water) before it can be cooked. In the recipe above, you’ll notice that the procedure follows this safety measure. Boiling removes the water-soluble toxins, making the plant safe for eating.25 But if you experience any of the symptoms mentioned above after eating milkweed (even if prepared correctly), stop and visit a doctor immediately.

Milkweed Can Be Beneficial, as Long as You Prepare It Correctly

Adding milkweed to your regular diet can be beneficial to your health. Just make sure to boil the plant properly several times, and don’t forget to discard the water you used before repeating the process. As long as you follow this precaution, milkweed should be safe to consume.

[+]Sources and References [-]Sources and References

  • 1, 2 PennState Extension, “Introduction to Weeds: What Are Weeds and Why Do We Care?”
  • 3, 14, 22 The Old Farmer’s Almanac, “Common Milkweed and Its Natural Remedies”
  • 4, 16 Gardening Know How, “Growing Milkweed — Using the Milkweed Plan in the Garden”
  • 5 Vitality Magazine, “Marvelous Milkweed”
  • 6, 8, 11, 13, 15 Daily Herald, “Beyond Butterflies: The Many Uses and Benefits of Milkweed Plants” October 21, 2015
  • 7 Herbpathy.com, “Common Milkweed Herb Uses, Benefits, Cures, Side Effects, Nutrients”
  • 9 Monarch Butterfly Garden, “Common Milkweed for Monarch Caterpillars”
  • 10 National Geographic, “Monarch Butterfly”
  • 12 Bug of the Week, “Bugs in Orange and Black: Monarch Butterfly, Milkweed Leaf Beetle, Milkweed Bug and Milkweed Tiger Moth” October 28, 2013
  • 17 Stewardship Garden, “Growing Milkweed for Monarchs”
  • 18 American Meadows, How to Germinate and Grow Milkweed Seed” June 11, 2015
  • 19 MonarchWatch.com, “Growing Milkweeds”
  • 20, 25 The Ann Arbor News, “You Can Eat Common Milkweed, but Should You?” June 13, 2011
  • 21 Portland Press Herald, “Sautéed Milkweed Pods: A Recipe to Delight the Forager” August 10, 2014
  • 23, 24 United States Department of Agriculture, “Milkweed (Asclepias Spp.)”