Cattail Moonshine and Milkweed Medicine (Storey, 2016) by Tammi Hartung a longtime herbalist and organic farmer, tells little-known and captivating stories of how humans have relied on these plants for millennia to nourish, shelter, heal, clothe, and even entertain us. Hartung has been growning and working with herbs for more than 30 years and is a frequent teacher and lecturer. She and her husband cultivate more than 500 varieties of herbs, heirloom food plants, and perennial seed crops on their organic farm in Colorado. The following excerpt is from the “M” section.
Common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca), showy milkweed (A. speciosa), butterfly milkweed/pleurisy root (A. tuberosa), and others.
Probably the best-known fact about milkweed is that it’s a host plant for butterflies like the monarch. In reality, although the plants are food for several different species of butterflies (not to mention a source of nectar for moths and hummingbirds), they are the sole food source for monarch butterfly larvae. Growing any of the milkweed species in your garden will attract a wonderful array of these creatures. Besides being a great wildlife plant, milkweeds have been used by humans as food and medicine, as textile material, and even for industrial purposes.
A Precarious Food Plant
Native people, early settlers, and modern foragers alike have eaten milkweed as a cooked vegetable. Nearly every part is edible, but each must be harvested at just the right time. Young, tender shoots in early spring; unopened flower buds in midsummer; firm, green seedpods in late summer — all can be eaten if they are boiled in multiple changes of water. Cook the unopened flower buds very well in sugar water until it thickens into a syrup, then strain out the cooked flowers and drizzle the milkweed flower syrup lightly over a dish of vanilla ice cream. If the plants are eaten raw or are too old or picked at the wrong time, however, they may cause nausea or vomiting.
A Natural Pesticide
Ironically (given its reputation as a host plant for pollinators), milkweed can also be used as a pesticide! Its seeds contain cardenolides, a compound that kills nematodes and armyworms. These are destructive pests for crops such as potatoes, soybeans, alfalfa, tomatoes, and corn. In field studies, turning milkweed seed meal into the soil resulted in 97 percent of the pests being killed, and with greater safety for humans and less negative environmental impact to wildlife, soil, and water than when conventional pesticides are employed.
Milkweed to the Rescue!
Seed floss from milkweed proved to be a valuable tool during the twentieth century. During World War II, the Japanese cut off access to Java, so the U.S. Navy needed to find an alternative to Javanese kapok (a plant tree cultivated for its buoyant seed floss) to fill its life jackets. They found a homegrown solution in milkweed; its seed floss is hollow and coated with a natural plant wax, which makes it waterproof and allows it to float. The federal government paid American schoolchildren 15 cents for every onion bag of unopened milkweed seedpods they collected. Each bag held between 600 to 800 pods, and two bags filled with the pods supplied enough seed floss to fill one life jacket. The navy made 1.2 million life jackets from milkweed seed floss during this time.
Interestingly, even though it repels water, milkweed floss actually absorbs oil. Because of this helpful trait, the seed floss is currently used to make floating kits that help clean up man-made oil spills.
Milkweed has medicinal uses, too! A number of Native tribes have used the latex juice from the roots, plant tops, and stem for medicinal purposes. The Miwok people used the latex to remove warts. The Cheyenne made a decoction of the dried plant tops and used it as an eyewash to heal snow blindness. Cherokee, Delaware, and Mohegan peoples used pleurisy root, also called butterfly milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa), made into a cough remedy. Today herbalists still use it for pleurisy, an inflammation in the lining around the lungs. The southwestern milkweed named immortal (Asclepias asperula), also called antelope horns because of the unique shape of the flowers, has traditionally been used for heart conditions.
Beyond its uses by indigenous people, milkweed was at one time a medicine that pharmacists prepared. Milkweeds have been prepared as tinctures and used as emetics to induce vomiting in the case of poisoning. From 1820 to 1905 Asclepias tuberosa was listed in the United States Pharmacopeia, and from 1906 to 1936 it was included in the National Formulary as an official botanical drug to treat the condition of pleurisy.
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Excerpted from Cattail Moonshine & Milkweed Medicine, © by Tammi Hartung, photography by Getty/Darlyne A. Murawskin and illustration by Edith Rewa Barrett, used with permission from Storey Publishing.