10 Neat Things About Milkweed
by Dorothy Dobbie
by Dorothy Dobbie

The Local Gardener magazines, Ontario Gardener, Manitoba Gardener and Alberta Gardener, are published by Pegasus Publications Inc.

Drawing on her 30 years' experience as a senior executive in the magazine publishing industry, Dorothy launched Manitoba Gardener in 1998, initially running the business out of her home. Two years later, Dorothy's daughter Shauna, living in Ontario, jumped into the fray with Ontario Gardener. And two years after that, they started Alberta Gardener. Visit us at and register for our "Ten Neat things" newsletter. Watch Shaw TV for garden tips and Listen to CJOB for the Gardener Sundays at 9:08

February 9, 2014

1. Where have all the flowers gone?

When Peter Seeger wrote that song, he wasn't writing about milkweed, the exclusive food for the monarch butterfly caterpillar, but he could have been because this amazing plant has been slowly disappearing from the highways and byways of North America. In our thrust to get ever higher yields from agricultural lands, companies such as Monsanto have been engineering crops to be resistant to glyphosate herbicides -- Round Up to consumers. Sadly, the milkweeds growing on the margins of these fields are not resistant and constitute collateral damage.

2. Well, it's just a weed so who cares?

The monarch butterflies would care if they had the capacity for such sentient reasoning. For now, they just die from lack of places to lay their eggs. But milkweed is actually a wondrous plant when you look a little closer. It is a lovely addition to any garden, a magnet for other butterflies and hummingbirds who seek out the abundant supply of sweet nectar the plant manufactures. It also exudes a heady vanilla scent.

3. How sweet it is.

Native Americans found many uses for milkweed, one of them being a source of sugar (remember, honeybees are not native to this continent). They would collect the flowers, then shake them to release the heavy drops of nectar, letting it dry then collecting the sugar.

4. Out, out foul weed!

For years, farmers sweated to eradicate milkweed because it can be toxic to farm animals if they eat too much. How much is too much? Quite a lot. A cow or a horse or a sheep would have to eat at least 10 per cent of its body weight in milkweed for it to be dangerous. Fact is, humans eat a lot of plants whose parts have toxic properties (rhubarb, potatoes, tomatoes, cherries, apples, etc.). We avoid the toxic part or use heat or other means to break down the toxins. The toxins in milkweed break down in water.

5. Eat 'em when they're young.

The emerging shoots of milkweed are delicious boiled. They taste like a cross between asparagus and green beans only better. Milkweed flower buds, when they are still young and tightly clustered, can be cooked and eaten like broccoli. Finally, and perhaps most strangely, the floss from very immature milkweed seed pods (one-inch stage) can be eaten when carefully cooked. Better though to leave them to mature and grow new milkweeds - and the seeds are lovely as they escape their pod prisons to waft on the wind like silken butterflies.

6. Rampant roamers and their subdued sisters.

The common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) has underground rhizomes which can get out of hand. But the most ornamental milkweeds are very well behaved. Look for Asclepias incarnata (lovely pink or white umbels of flowers) and Asclepias tuberosa (flaming orange with yellow centres).

7. Named for the god of healing.

There are 140 known species of milkweed or Asclepias, named by Linnaeus after the Greek god of healing because the plant has so many virtues in the medicine bag. The alkaloids in the milky latex sap were helpful in curing warts. But it was in the roots that most of its healing powers were stored. A. tuberosa was commonly called pleurisy root for its efficacy in treating respiratory illnesses. Milkweed root was also used to reduce fevers and to remove intestinal parasites.

8. What do orchids and milkweed have in common?

If you're an orchidist you'll know that the answer is pollinia. Orchids and milkweeds are the only two plants that group their pollen grains in little twin pollen sacs which are picked up in pairs by travelling pollinators, that sometimes get trapped by the plant when trying to free themselves of this clever little device, losing a limb or even their lives as they struggle to get away. Fortunately for both the plants and their visitors, this happens to a minority -- although a careful look at the blossoms of the milkweed will often reveal the remains of some unlucky victim.

9. Beauty in the garden; beauty in the vase.

Milkweeds make excellent cut flowers, both dried and fresh. They are also long lasting. Some people cauterize the sappy stalks with a flame before putting them into a vase.

10. From mattresses to rubber.

During the second World War, children collected milkweed pods to harvest the seed silk, which has properties similar to that of goose down. The floss was used to stuff airmen's jackets, and in pioneer days it was used to stuff pillows and mattresses. It is hypoallergenic, too. Because the saps contain about two per cent latex, experiments were carried out to manufacture rubber during the War but abandoned when a cheaper synthetic method was discovered. Milkweed fibres have been used to make rope and paper. People are still looking at ways to make economically feasible bio fuel and lubricants from its oils, and derivatives are being used in pesticides. What a weed!

- Dorothy Dobbie Copyright© Pegasus Publications Inc

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