The Amazing Milkweed

There are about 2500 species of milkweed in the world, over 100 of which are native to North America. One of the most familiar North American milkweeds is the Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca). Though Common Milkweed is often treated as a noxious weed by farmers and gardeners, it is a true case of one man's trash being another man's treasure.

Interest in milkweeds, especially Common Milkweed and its relative, Showy Milkweed (Asclepias speciosa), is growing as the plant's many uses become more widely known and studied.

Common Milkweed, by JacobEnos
Common Milkweed, by JacobEnos
Monarch caterpillars on milkweed, by Oakley Originals
Monarch caterpillars on milkweed, by Oakley Originals

Host Plant for the Monarch Butterfly

The milkweed is most famous as the host plant for the Monarch Butterfly. The Monarch is the national insect of the United States and one of the most beautiful and beloved butterflies in the world.

The monarch is one of relatively few butterflies that migrate. Every year, monarchs travel more than 2,000 miles from their summer homes in the United States and Canada to their overwinter grounds in the rainforests of Mexico. Unfortunately, thanks to habitat loss in both regions, Monarch populations are in decline.

As a result, many families, schools, businesses, organizations, and other groups have started to create butterfly gardens to help protect habitat for the butterflies. Milkweed is not only the sole host plant of Monarch caterpillars, it is also a favorite nectar source for the adult butterflies.

The toxic leaves of the milkweed not only provide food for monarch caterpillars, they also provide protection. Because of their poisonous diet, Monarch caterpillars and butterflies are also poisonous and distasteful to birds and other predators. They advertise their unpleasant flavor with the brilliant orange color that makes them the most widely recognized of all butterflies.

Monarchs are not the only creature that likes milkweed nectar. Among the others known to be frequent visitors to milkweed plants include swallowtails, painted ladies, American ladies, red admirals, fritillaries, hairstreaks, hummingbirds, and several moths.

Milkweed flowers are also a popular source of nectar for many species of bees. Over 30% of human food crops are entirely or primarily dependent on bees for pollination, yet bee populations are also in decline around the world. To learn more about how you can give these vitally important pollinators a helping hand, please read Plant a Bee Garden.

Monarch Migration

Milkweed Floss

Like dandelions, maple trees, and many other plants, milkweeds rely on the wind to distribute its seeds. Each seed pod contains hundreds of small, light seeds attached to feathery floss.

This floss has been collected and used for centuries by humans thanks to its softness and warmth.

American Indian tribes used milkweed floss to line the beds of their infants, as well as blankets and clothing for adults.

During the 19th century, there was a thriving milkweed industry in Massachusetts, which used milkweed floss primarily to stuff mattresses.

In World War Two, the Japanese cut off America's supply of kapok, a natural fiber used to stuff life jackets for sailors. Milkweed floss proved to be a perfect alternative. Milkweed floss is 6-8 times more buoyant than cork. A single pound can keep a 100-150 pound man afloat for hours. The United States government enlisted schoolchildren across the nation to collect milkweed pods as part of the war effort. By the end of the war, it is estimated that they had gathered 11 million pounds.

In addition to life vests, the floss was also used for bomber jackets, because it provided a lightweight yet warm lining for the jackets, and could double as a life vest in case of a water landing.

Following the end of the war, interest in milkweed floss died off, but in recent years there has been a revival thanks to the discovery that milkweed floss, when mixed with goose down, traps and suppresses dust and dander than can cause allergic reactions in some people. Down comforters containing a mix of goose down and milkweed floss are now commonly sold as a hypoallergenic alternative to pure down comforters. "Hypodown," as it is sometimes called, is also used to stuff pillows, jackets, and other products. Studies have shown that milkweed floss is actually 20% warmer by weight than goose down; however, it has lower lift and as a result is likely to continue being used more in combination with down than as a solo product for use in bedding.

Milkweed pod, by harryalverson
Milkweed pod, by harryalverson

Milkweed Oil

Milkweed floss is not the only useful part of the milkweed pod. The seeds, it turns off, contain an oil that has natural sunscreen properties! The oils, when stabilized, also show signs of good potential as a moisturizer, but research into the cosmetic uses of milkweeds is still in the early stages.

Other Uses of Milkweed

  • The blossoms have a beautiful fragrance.
  • Attempts have been made (by Thomas Edison among others) to create rubber from the milky white sap of the milkweed, but the attempts so far have failed thanks to insufficient concentrations of latex.
  • The genus (Asclepias) was actually named after the Greek god of medicine due to its milkweed's many medicinal uses, which include treatment of skin disorders, digestive disorders, and internal parasites.
  • The tough yet soft fibers in the stems were used by American Indian tribes to make cords, string, and even textiles!
  • Although some parts of the milkweed are poisonous, the shoots, buds, and several other parts of the plant were commonly eaten by American Indian tribes and by wild foods enthusiasts today.
  • The nectar, which is high in glucose, was used as a sweetener by American Indians and settlers.
  • Research is currently underway to determine if milkweed extracts can be used as natural insecticides and nematocides for certain pest species.

Milkweed as an Alternative Crop

There is a small, yet growing, milkweed industry, based primarily in Ogallala, Nebraska, where the hypodown company Natural Fibers Corporation, is located.

Curiously, though relatively easy to grow in gardens or as part of prairie restoration projects, this aggressive, even invasive, plant does not perform well under modern agricultural cultivation techniques, where it falls prey to disease.  However, the growing demand for hypodown combined with promising research into other uses for the plant provide motivation to study and improve cultivation techniques for the plant.

Interest in milkweed as an alternative crop is also growing because it is dependent upon insects for pollination, promising increased farm habitat for threatened insects such as monarch butterflies and honeybees, as well as other wildlife.

As a long-live perennial with a deep taproot, milkweed can also reduce erosion thanks to its own soil-holding capabilities and the reduced need for cultivation. Though asingle planting of milkweed can provide 10-20 years of productive harvest, the plants do take longer to mature than annual crops such as corn, typically 2-3 years from planting to first significant harvest.

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Comments 11 comments

C.S.Alexis profile image

C.S.Alexis 7 years ago from NW Indiana

I had no idea there were so many varieties of this plant. You sure did your homework on this one. I like the plant for the interesting pods as an art form myself. Thanks for sharing.


Cindy Letchworth profile image

Cindy Letchworth 7 years ago from Midwest, U.S.A.

Love this. I have milkweeds that have grown up spontenousely in my backyard. I always welcome them as I am a big supporter of Monarch butterflies. I did not know about the floss. Really interesting.


hot dorkage profile image

hot dorkage 7 years ago from Oregon, USA

Nice! I had no idea about any of his stuff, except that milkweeds were regarded as weeds.


Peggy W profile image

Peggy W 7 years ago from Houston, Texas

Very interesting article! I also had no idea of the many uses of milkweed. They grew wild in the fields in Wisconsin when I was a child. In the fall we gathered them and interspursed them with other weeds in arrangements. Thumbs up on this hub!


vwalden profile image

vwalden 7 years ago from Chicago

Facsinating. More reasons to love the humble milkweed plant. Thanks.


marisuewrites profile image

marisuewrites 7 years ago from USA

I love butterflies and found your information extra helpful. I'm adding more milkweed to my garden!! great hub!


Theophanes profile image

Theophanes 7 years ago from New England

I used to have milkweed growing out in the back yard which I never touched because I really adore the monarch caterpillars. I had wondered if anyone spun the floss before and am delighted to find an answer to that question! I had no idea they could be eaten. How fascinating. Great article!


chinnu 6 years ago

top pics


pinkhawk profile image

pinkhawk 6 years ago from Pearl of the Orient

...very informative and interesting! :) I also learn new things, thank you very much!


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 5 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

I love learning about butterflies. Your hub was very detailed and informative. The facts about milkweed floss were especially interesting, since this was all new information for me.


Greensleeves Hubs profile image

Greensleeves Hubs 3 years ago from Essex, UK

Hi kerryg. I really like this hub, and the information it contains about the milkweed plant and its value to both man and to wildlife which uses the plant as a source of food. Voted up, accordingly. Alun.

I would like to include the hub in a review of ten of the best wild plant and flower hubs on this site. In order to do this, I do need to include one photo (the photo of the flowers) if that is OK, in order to represent the page. The review will be published within the next week, and hopefully it will bring a few more viewers to this hub. I believe the image is in the public domain, but do please let me know if there is a problem with using it. Many thanks and best wishes, Alun.

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