Asclepias spp. – Milkweed

MilkweedAsclepias spp.

Asclepias = a-sklay-pee-as, from Greek Asklepias, god of medicine, referring to its medicinal properties;

Identification: Milkweeds are perennial, stout, hairy herbs that stand 60 – 200 cm tall. The leaves are opposite or whorled, ovate to broadly lanceolate, on very short petioles. The flowers are in umbels and are purplish – pink, with one variety having greenish white flowers.

Distribution & Habitat: Milkweed can be found in moist waste areas, meadows, beside fences and stream beds, in loamy to sandy soil throughout North America.

Preparation & Uses: Check the poisonous plant section of this book. Indians ate the unopened flower buds, often boiling them with soups or meat (the flower buds acted as a meat tenderizer). The flowers are high in sugar content and were sometimes boiled down to produce a syrup. The Cheyenne peeled the immature fruit pods (up to the time the pods feel elastic) to eat the innards. It is not advisable to eat milkweed raw because it has been responsible for poisonings in livestock. Cooking neutralizes the poisons. The water should be changed at least once but it is tastier after the second water change. The young shoots (up to eight inches tall) can be cooked like asparagus. Eastern Indians baked and ate the tuberous root.

Medicinally, these plants were widely used. The milky latex was used to remove warts, moles, corns, calluses and ringworm. It was also used for treating sores, cuts and burns. It was accepted by the Canadian pharmaceutical industry as a good antiseptic barrier in the 1880 s. A decoction of the root has been used to treat coughs, gonorrhea, syphilitic sores, asthma, indigestion, as a laxative and to induce urination. It was specifically used for kidney stones. It is also recorded as a folk remedy for cancer. Large amounts cause vomiting. The mashed root has been used as a poultice for swellings, especially rheumatic swelling. An infusion of the entire plant was used by some Indians to treat tender breasts and to mildly increase lactation. The root tea was also supposed to be used as a temporary contraceptive tea.

The silky hairs were burned off the ripe seeds which were then ground to form a salve for sores. The seeds were boiled by the Nevada Indians and the solution was used to draw the poison out of rattlesnake bites. They also boiled the root to bring out the rash associated with measles.

Some Indians and early settlers collected the silk from the pod to stuff pillows, beds and comforters. They even weaved it into a silky linen.