Milkweed Benefits

Learn all about the historic medicinal and industrial uses of Milkweed.

  • You wouldn't want to eat the fluff of a mature pod, but young pods and flowers are actually quite tasty and nutritious.
    Photo by Getty Images/ Darlyne A. Murawski
  • Milkweed is host plant for monarch butterflies.
    Illustration by Edith Rewa Barrett

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.



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