Herbs: Common Milkweed; History, Culinary Uses and Nutrition

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Common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) is an herb and wild flower that grows in many parts of the Eastern United States. The plant was once a source of food and medicine for American Indians and early colonists.

Common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) is an herbaceous plant that bears attractive summer wild flowers. This plant is native to North America and some parts of Eastern Europe, where it has been traditionally valued for medicinal purposes, for food, and to make paper, cloth, and down for mattresses. Many people believe this herb to be a valuable resource, but as yet its commercial potential has not been continuously exploited.

The Milkweed genus is part of the Ascelpiadaceae botanical family, which encompasses over 2000 plant species. Although some 75 species of milkweeds are native to the USA, the vast majority are poisonous. Even common milkweed is mildly toxic and inedible unless it is boiled in several changes of water. Common milkweed is found from Oregon through the American East and down as far as the Georgia highlands, where it grows along sandy coastal areas, disturbed lands, roadsides and fields. Foraging for common milkweed as food, even with a good field guide, is not recommended, as there are quite a few toxic look-a-likes, such as dogbane (Apocynum species) and close common milkweed relatives like butterflyweed. 

The common milkweed plant grows from 3-5 feet tall and has thick stems which contain a milky latex substance that protects the plant against insects. Milkweed flower buds look like small heads of broccoli and its wild flowers, often pink or white, form fragrant, unbrel-lalike clusters, making this plant an attractive pot herb.

Linnaeus gave milkweed its botanical name, Aclepias (derived from the Greek god of medical arts, Asclepius) for good reason. The many medicinal uses for milkweeds stretch back over the centuries and are probably more wide ranging than any other plant. However, no one is sure why the Swedish botanist named this particular genus syriaca, meaning Syria, since the plant is indigenous to North America.

Milkweed’s most useful attribute is its milky sap, which oozes out of its stems and leaves when broken with the principle constituent being 0.1-1.5% caoutchouc, although the milk also contains gum, sugar and fats. The sap, which sets on exposure to air, is poisonous to animals and some unfortunate animals have actually had heart attacks after grazing on milkweeds. Manufactures have tried unsuccessfully to produce natural rubber from milkweed latex. It’s thought that the chemical structure of the sap is more suitable for making chicle, an ingredient in chewing gum. Native Americans also used the sap to make textile dyes.

Milkweed seeds are covered with hairs, or fuzz, which are carried by the wind to their place of germination, sometimes miles away, like miniature snow blizzards. Once settled they propagate tenaciously, forming hard to remove roots. The American naturalist John Burroughs, wrote of milkweed; “Its roots lie deep as if to get away from the plow”.

During World War II the seed hairs, which were light and waterproof, were used to replace Asian kapok in life jackets and airman’s outfits, as kapok was almost unavailable. At one time, milkweed seed hair, known as coma, was used to fill mattresses and pillows. This eventually became unfeasible as it took 30,000 plants to produce enough coma for about 100 mattresses. Fibers and seed hairs from the pods were also used to make good paper, hats and cloth. These uses of milkweed brought about its other common names, cottonweed and silkweed.


Culinary Uses: Common milkweed, the only variety regarded as safe to eat, must be properly prepared to get rid of the bitter tasting, toxic sap. Flowers and unopened flower buds, which taste like broccoli, are edible and should also be cooked. In the 18th century people from Canada to New England regarded milkweed sprouts as a nutritious, tasty wild vegetable. Some said they tasted like string beans.

Canadians made sugar from the flowers, and when combined with sugar and lemon, they made wine. American Indians, in particular Chippewas, preserved the flower buds in summer and added them to soups in winter. Dakotas are known to have cooked the seed pods in stews along with buffalo, as certain enzymes in the seeds act as a meat tenderizer. Milkweed flowers have an aromatic, perfumed taste and are added to soups and casseroles.

Medicinal Uses and Nutrition: Milkweed leaves and the milky sap were used in traditional folk remedies for a variety of ailments before antibiotics were discovered. They include; gallstones, cancer, moles, pleurisy, bronchitis, cough, dysentery, pneumonia, ringworm, rheumatism, sores, warts and ulcers.

Milkweed roots which have anti-inflammatory properties were used to treat typhoid fever and asthma. Because of their known effects in U.S pharmacopoeia, milkweed was imported to Europe in the 17th century. The plant was cataloged by the English botanist Nicholas Culpeper, in his book Complete Herbal, published in 1653. He named the herb, swallow-wort.

Mohawk Indians were known to drink ground milkweed roots mixed with jack-in-the-pulpit and water as an antifertility potion or contraceptive. Milkweed roots are also used in homeopathy as an anti-edemic.

The seeds of milkweed are a source of fatty acids, primarily linoleic and oleic. They also contain small quantities of condurangin; a type of glycoside which is toxic in large amounts. There are also nine types of cardenolides or steroids present. The sprouts and leaves contain beta-sitosterol, tannins, beta-amyrin and asclepiadin. Aside from caoutchouc, the milky sap also contains beta-sitosterol (anti-tumor) alpha and beta-amyrin (acetate) and beta-asclepiadin.

Varieties of Milkweed: The many varieties of milkweed found across North America bear attractive wild flowers and have proved very useful, both to American Indian and colonists. Aclepias incarnata, (incarnata meaning 'all pink') also known as swamp milkweed is found east of the Rockies. Although inedible, this herb was used to make strong fiber. A. incarnata’s flowers are more attractive than milkweed, although less fragrant.

Aclepias tuberosa is better known as butterfly weed, because butterflies are so attracted to it. Its bright orange flowers are an unusual sight and easy to spot. This plant is poisonous to humans and animals, although traditionally it was used to treat pleurisy; an infection of the lungs. Unlike common milkweed, butterfly weed has a clear sap.

Mexican butterfly weed or A.curassavica is a milkweed variety with stunning red and orange flowers. In North America it is found in the Golf coastal States and in Southern California, although its name curassavica means 'from Curacao'.  


Swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) Image credit; mdprovost at flickr.com. 

Primary image by JacobEnos, at flickr.com.


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