Family: Apocynaceae, the Dogbane Family
Description: Native perennial herb up to 2m tall. Leaves oppositely arranged, gray-downy beneath. Fruit a pair of pods (follicles) with warty surface, seeds with long, silky hairs. Pink-red-purple flowers in terminal umbels. Leaves and stem exude white latex when broken.
Abundance: Uncommon on Mt. Desert Island, frequently weedy elsewhere
Habitat: Roadsides, old fields, woodland edges
Plant Parts Used: Follicles, shoots, latex
Food: Edible pods and shoots
Other: Cordage, Monarch butterfly food
Milkweed’s young pods and young shoots are edible. Some sources say to cook milkweed with up to three changes of water to remove the toxic glycosides found in the latex, but Ray only cooks milkweed with one change of water and does not cook them for more than two or three minutes. Caution must be exercised when eating milkweed shoots because they are often hard to distinguish from dogbane (Apocynum spp.), which is inedible. Milkweed’s milky latex can cure warts, as used by the Cherokee and Rappahannock, but one must dab the latex on the wart diligently.
Ray also said that the silky hairs attached to the seeds can be used as pillow stuffing instead of down. The stem fibers can be woven together into a cord strong enough for a bowstring with a forty pound draw. Arthur says that swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) makes the best cordage. Deb loves milkweed’s appealing fragrance. She will dip the pink but unopened flowers in an egg batter and prepare them as delicious fritters. If these uses are not enough to convince people to protect this sometimes unpopular weed, realize that monarch butterfly larvae exclusively eat milkweed—if milkweed were gone, the monarchs that are not doing so well right now would likely disappear.
Caution: The milky latex may cause dermatitis in some people. According to Turner and Von Aderkas, there have been many cases of livestock being poisoned by consuming milkweed, though there have been no cases of humans being poisoned by milkweed. However, uncooked shoots and mature plants should never be consumed and only the edible species should be consumed after being cooked in at least one change of water.
Note: This post is part of my Plants and People series. See my Plants and People page for more information about the project and the people referenced in this post.
- Haines, Arthur. “Preserving Native Plant Knowledge.” Somes-Meynell Wildlife Sanctuary, Mt. Desert, Maine. 9 Oct. 2010. Lecture.
- Hayes, Terry-Anya. Personal interview. 27 Oct. 2010.
- Michener, Martin C. Botany Everywhere: Woods, Field, Home, and Garden Plants of NE USA, Third Edition. Hollis, NH: MIST Software Associates, Inc., 2009. PDF.
- Mittelhauser, Glen H., Linda L. Gregory, Sally C. Rooney, and Jill E. Weber. The Plants of Acadia National Park. Orono, Me.: University of Maine, 2010. Print.
- Moerman, Daniel E. Native American Medicinal Plants: an Ethnobotanical Dictionary. Portland, Or.: Timber, 2009. Print.
- Reitze, Raymond and Nancy. Personal interview. 8, 15 Oct. 2010.
- Turner, Nancy J., and Patrick Von Aderkas. The North American Guide to Common Poisonous Plants and Mushrooms. Portland: Timber, 2009. Print.