Common Milkweed

Common Milkweed
Aselepias syriaca
The genus of all milkweeds (asclepias) was named in honor of the greek God of Medicine - Asclepias - because of the medicinal properties of some of the species. The common name comes from the milky liquid in the stem of the plant and its designation as a weed in most if not all places. Common Milkweed is a tall plant ranging from 4 to 6 feet in height with long oval leaves. These leaves are about 10 inches long and light green in color with a gray down on the underside. The leaves grow opposite each other on the plant stem and have no stem of their own. The flowers appear from June to August and bloom in a large dropping cluster of purplish to pink color. While the flower cluster can be 4 or 5 inches across, the individual flower is very small measuring only about to inch across. In the fall the fruit appears, a long rough textured pod that splits open and sends hundreds of brown seeds flying on the wind with their own fluffy white parachute.

Common Milkweed is found on roadsides, old fields and meadows from Canada south to Georgia and west through Tennessee to Kansas and Iowa. The pictures here were taken at Black Hawk State Park in Rock Island, Illinois and in a field near Orion, Illinois.

Common Milkweed is the only host plant for the monarch butterfly. The eggs are laid on the plant, the plant leaves are the sole source of nourishment for the resulting caterpillars. The chrysalis is woven and hangs from the underside of the leaves. If you see a monarch butterfly, they will eventually lead you to the Milkweed.

One of my sources claims that the very young shoots can be cooked and eaten much like asparagus and the young pods can be boiled and served as a vegetable. The unopened flower clusters are similar to broccoli.

The plant also contains medicinal properties in the cardiac glycosides it contains. These are an important class of naturally occurring drugs that are used in treating some heart disease. They are allied to digitalis which is found in foxglove. These same glycosides when absorbed by the monarch larvae make it and the adult butterfly toxic to birds and other predators.

Native Americans and the early pioneers used the plant for many things. The milky sap was used as a cure for warts. The fluffy seed parachutes were used to insulate moccasins. The dried seed pods were used as Christmas tree decorations. The root was pounded and an infusion was made by Quebec Indian women as a contraceptive. Today the root is considered poisonous.
Copyright 2006
KayDee Ward....All Rights Reserved
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