Versatile Milkweed

It’s hard to think of another wild plant that that has more uses for humans than milkweed. The young leaves and shoots can be eaten in spring – they’re often referred to as “poor man’s asparagus.” This time of year, the flower buds can be harvested to make capers. Later this summer, the immature pods can be used to make a side dish that tastes somewhat like okra.

Milkweed is named for the sticky white juice in its stems and leaves, a lightly toxic, bitter latex that is neutralized when you cook it. During rubber shortages in World War II, this latex was considered as a rubber substitute; in the same period, milkweed floss was used in life vests and other gear for U.S. troops, substituting for kapok. It has been shown to be a better insulator than down.

The latex can serve as a natural bandage for wounds, owing to its quick-drying elasticity that doesn’t wash off. It serves the plant by deterring insects and grazing animals with its bitter taste, though not so much the monarch butterfly caterpillar. Contrary to popular belief, monarch caterpillars are not immune to the latex – according to research cited in the book Monarchs and Milkweed by Anurag Agrawal, about 60 percent of monarch caterpillars die when they eat it, either from toxins in the latex or because it seals their mouths shut. What’s in it for the caterpillars is that those who do survive become toxic themselves to would-be predators.

Medicinally, milkweed is used as a folk remedy to treat warts and moles. (Many folk remedies are based on the “doctrine of signatures,” which holds that plants that look like a body part can be used to treat that body part, making it no surprise that milkweed, with the wart-like projections on its fruit, has been used in this manner.)

Cherokee, Iroquois, and Rappahannock sources document its use as a laxative and diuretic; early American physicians used it to treat asthma and rheumatism, as well as for other maladies.

Its practical uses extend beyond medicine. According to Arthur Haines’ book Ancestral Plants, the stems make good cordage. The hairs attached to the seeds are also a useful tinder source.