Milkweed is a downy perennial plant that has a solitary, erect stem that grows 3-6 feet high and bears opposite, large, oblong, short-petioled leaves. The leaves are filled with a poisonous milky white juice. It has clusters of dull purple flowers and it blooms from June to August. It has large warty seedpods that are filled with a fluffy silk. It is common throughout eastern North America, growing in fields, roadsides, fence rows, and uncultivated areas.
Milkweed has many practical uses on the homestead. Here are some of the things that you can do with this interesting plant.
It’s tough, stringy stalks can be used as a fiber to make string and rope as well as being woven into course fabric. American Indians even made fishing nets out of milkweed fiber. You can find instruction on making cordage from milkweed here and here.
The seed pods of common milkweed are filled with a fluffy, silk like substance that carries the seeds through the air. This material is often used by woodsman as tinder for starting fires. Early American pioneers used it to stuff pillows, mattresses and quilts. In World War II, there was a shortage of the material used to stuff life jackets. Milkweed floss, being six times more buoyant than cork, was used as a substitute.
The milkweed plant is listed in at least one book as a dye plant. With experimentation using different mordants, many unique colors can be produced. You can learn more about dying fiber naturally here.
Milkweed is listed in many herbal books as having medicinal properties, but the Rodale herb Book warns that it should only be used by experienced herbalists. Although common milkweed is only mildly poisonous, some similar plants in the same family are very poisonous. The plant may be useful for kidney problems, dropsy, scrofula, bladder conditions , water retention, asthma, stomach problems, gallstones, arthritis, and bronchitis. It is also listed by some for reducing fever. American Indians used the milky juice to kill warts and ringworm. You should be aware that the Indians also used an infusion of the rootstock to produce temporary sterility, a possible unwanted side affect for us.
Milkweed is an important nectar source for honey bees. During the milkweed flow you can be sure to find many honey bees working the blossoms. Some wasps and flies also feed on the nectar. The Monarch Butterfly larvae feeds almost exclusively on milkweed. It has a natural resistance to the plants poison and predators pass them by because of the bad taste. It is worth keeping some milkweed around for the benefit of the Monarch, who has fallen on hard times as of late.
You can view more North Country Farmer “Plant Profiles” at This Link.