Beyond butterflies: The many uses and benefits of milkweed plants
Thousands of seeds are floating across fields this month, like tiny paratroopers dangling from silky parachutes. They're milkweed seeds, launched from ripe seed pods. If they land on target, new milkweed plants will appear next spring.
That's great news if you're a butterfly, a beetle, a bug or a human. Milkweed is an all-around cool plant with a multitude of uses.
Milkweed plants are most often associated with monarch butterflies, but lots of other animals are attracted to milkweeds as well.
The red milkweed beetle and the giant milkweed bug are most striking. The milkweed beetle is lipstick red with black spots on its back, and long, black antennae.
Milkweed bugs, different beasts altogether, are an orange-red with black markings. Numerous aphids -- and aphid predators like ladybug beetles and ants -- also reap benefits from these native plants.
Human use of milkweeds runs the gamut from fiber to food and medicine. This comes as a surprise to many of us who have always been told to beware of the toxic sap. But long before European arrival in North America, indigenous people knew how to use milkweed, despite of -- and sometimes because of -- the sap.
Milkweed sap, which looks and feels much like Elmer's Glue, contains chemical compounds called cardiac glycosides. These are the plant's main line of defense against predators. The toxicity varies through the life of the plant, so knowing when to pick it is important. Knowing the dosage and application are also key.
Milkweed was a multipurpose medicinal plant in the pharmacopeia of Native Americans.
In a report on the traditional use of plants in the Indiana Dunes area, Rebecca Troupal wrote, "Indians used (butterfly milkweed) as a salve for scrofulous swelling, and rashes. As a tea or soup it was taken as a diarrhea medicine, by mothers to produce milk, for snow and other forms of blindness, sore throats, bronchial and pulmonary problems, pleurisy, rheumatism, stomachaches, intestinal pains, to expel tapeworms, treat colic, as a contraceptive, and to cure snakebite. It was used as a wash on sore muscles."
Pioneer doctors, learning from indigenous people, called this plant "pleurisy root" for its purported healing powers for lung ailments.
As food, milkweed may not have been the featured entree, but it was added to other dishes. Pottawatomi used milkweed "flowers and buds to thicken meat soups and to impart a very pleasing flavor to the dish," according to ethnobotanist Daniel Moerman.
Milkweed was widely used for fiber. Its stems were separated into strips and used for bow strings, thread, fishing line, and belts.
During the 20th century, milkweeds fell in and out of favor in the United States. At times they were disparaged as weeds to be pulled and plowed and sprayed with herbicide. But during World War II milkweeds reached their peak of popularity. Milkweed, one might say, helped win the war.
How could a lowly roadside weed win a war? Back to those paratrooper seeds. The silky seeds were an important material for making life vests and flight suits. This was critical when Japan cut off the supply of kapok, the plant fiber previously used for buoyancy in flotation devices.
"Hollow (milkweed) fibers are coated in wax, making them waterproof and buoyant," explained Patterson Clark in a Washington Post article. Milkweed was abundant, free, and there for the taking -- a perfect substitute for kapok.
Volunteers all over the country were sent out to search roadsides and fields for milkweed seeds. The milkweed workforce was made of children, who were nimble of finger, familiar with fields and fencerows, and eager to do their part for the war effort. The Soil Conservation Service distributed pamphlets soliciting the help of youth across the country.
"Schoolchildren of America! Help save your father's, brothers', and neighbors' lives by collecting milkweed pods." A common slogan was, "Two bags save one life!" as two bags of milkweed silk could be used to make one life vest. An added incentive for the young milkweed hunters was a cash reward -- 15 cents for an onion-bag full of pods.
Patriotic schoolchildren throughout the country harvested an estimated 1.5 billion milkweed pods, with a net weight of 11 million pounds of seed, which made 1.2 million life vests during the war.
After the war, synthetic materials replaced plant fibers in flotation devices, and milkweed pods were left to disseminate their seeds. For a while. Postwar agribusiness cranked up its chemical warfare against weeds, milkweed included. Pesticides eliminated much of the fencerow habitat that supported milkweed and many other native plants. With the loss of fencerows came a loss in wildlife. Monarch butterflies are among the many animals affected by this decline.
The popularity of monarch butterflies has been a boon to milkweed species. Lots of people have gotten on the bandwagon for monarch protection, which mean milkweed protection. Once again, milkweed is "in" -- which is a good thing, because milkweed is a plant with a multitude of virtues.
• Valerie Blaine is a naturalist with the Forest Preserve District of Kane County. You may reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.