The Many Haircuts of Milkweed
Sunk in the grass of an empty lot on a spring Saturday, I split the stems of milkweed and thought about ants and peach pits and death and where the world went when I closed my eyes . . . Toni Morrison (American Novelist)
In the title of this photo essay I have used the term "haircut" as a fitting metaphor for the many "personality stages" of the milkweed plant, which coincides with its various uses and benefits to humans. As you browse through the photos and written words, my hope is that you'll begin to understand how important this little plant is, as we sometime take it for granted. I'm guilty of it myself and have only recently learned to appreciate how interesting and surprisingly beautiful the milkweed truly is. It happened when I was photographing scenes at the beach where I work summers in southwest Michigan. Just like the little bees and butterflies, what first caught my eye was its lovely floral stage full of colorful star shaped petals sitting on its circular umbel! How could I have missed this beauty in nature after all these year? As with all the glories of our natural world, my curiosity grew from there and so I did some digging around. Now, I have come to fully appreciate the common milkweed, Latin named "Asclepia, syriaca" and would like to spread the word so that you can too!
Habitat and Hardiness
The milkweed plant is native to the United States east of the Rocky Mountain Range. Whereas I find it thriving in a sunny location rooted in sandy soil within the dunescapes near Lake Michigan, it also grows hardily in a variety of habitats including: pastures, prairies, clay and rocky calcareous soils, forests, flood plains or roadsides. Its survivalist, widespread distribution is due in part because it's a very hardy perennial plant with thick waxy leaves and tough stems. It belongs to a family of herbs and shrubs characterized by milky sap, tufts of silky hairs attached to the seed and (mostly) a climbing habit.
The milkweed brings up to my very door
The theme of wanton waste in peace and war.... Robert Frost
Milkweed was one of the earliest North American species described in 1635 by Jacques Phillippe Cornut, a French botanist/physician. He was the author of Enchiridion Botanicum Parisiense, a study of flora in both Paris and eastern North America.
Swedish botanist, physician and zoologist, Carl Linnaeus, 1707-1778, has been called the father of modern taxonomy for laying the foundation of modern biological naming. He named the milkweed genus after Asclepius (the Greek god of healing) for the many folk medicinal uses of the plant.
MILKWEED TOXINS (Harmful? Beneficial? or Both)
Milkweed is named for its milky juice within the leaves and stems consisting of a latex which contains alkaloids and several other complex compounds including "cardiac glycosides" valuable for treating heart disease. Though, overeating of most specie's leaves and stems can be toxic to large herbivores including humans. One must use caution if thinking about drinking the milky juice or including the leaves in a recipe. Symptoms of poisoning by the cardiac glycosides can have serious consequences including lethargy, bloating, inability to stand or walk, fever, difficulty breathing, rapid and weak pulse, spasms, dilated pupils, and coma. The good news is one would have to ingest a large amount of those sometimes bitter-tasting parts, approximately 10% of their own body weight, in order for it to cause serious effects, even death.
Early Europeans used the toxins as "folk medicine" to induce vomiting and fever, a common practice believing that disease got expelled from the body. Also, they used the milky latex juices as a remedy for treating warts.
So Many More Uses: In the past, people all over the United States and southern Canada have used milkweed for fiber, food, and medicine. Many Early Voyagers as well as Native American Tribes used the high dextrose content in the milkweed flowers as a source of sweetener. Besides the many medicinal uses explained below, the Native Americans also found the fluffy seed structures as an ideal insulation for moccasins. The United States Army in WWII used the seed structures as insulation for life jackets. The stems of the milkweed dries up in the autumn season and their fibers toughen enough to be used for making cords and ropes and for weaving a coarse cloth.
Burdock Explains The Edible Parts and Old Myths
Monarchs and Milkweed
The milkweed is a wonderful horticulture plant to include in the landscape for its sweet fragrance, but more so for attracting butterflies and moths. It also attracts beetles and spiders, even hummingbirds, but none more so than the monarch butterfly. The milkweed is the sole food source for the monarch larvae on which the eggs are laid on the underside of young leaves. Subsequently, the larvae feed voraciously on the leaves and then matures into the chrysalis. As a result, of the monarch larvaes ingesta milkweed, they also ingest the toxins. These compounds secrete into their wings and exoskeletons when reaching adulthood. This makes them toxic to many potential predators who quickly learn the larvae and adults taste bad and/or make them vomit. The milkweed toxins also make the plant beneficial in the garden for repelling certain pests from other nearby plants.
- Second Annual Butterfly Festival in Cole, Oklahoma
Butterflies and flowers. Two-legged gauzy winged insects. Fun, frolic and information to delight any butterfly admirer.
Champion For The Milkweed and Monarchs
Annie Hart of Cole Oklahoma has been called "Mother Milkweed" and gladly accepts the title. It started when she and others in her community had noticed how fewer and fewer monarch butterflies showed up during the annual migration in route to Mexico. They had heard stories of monarchs turning alfalfa fields from purple to orange when they journeyed through their territory. They began to wonder what had happened. Turns out, part of the problem started in 2002 when a hard freeze in Mexico depleted 80 percent of the population. But another problem had been habitat depletion where the milkweed host plant can thrive. She realized that monarch butterflies needed both the milkweed flowers for the nectar that fuels the migration engine, and the milkweed leaves to lay their eggs. That started Annie Hart on a passionate mission and she began to organize monarch gardens in her central Oklahoma community being sure to include the milkweed. In 2007 she also organized an annual Monarch Migration Festival to bring light and awareness to the troubling situation.
Most people love flowers and are not necessarily fans of milkweed, but if Hart has her way, people will change their perceptions. Her group of volunteers maintain a seed bank of milkweed and make themselves available to any community in central Oklahoma interested in creating its own butterfly gardens. She even thinks it might be good to move the festival to a different community each year so that butterfly gardens spread and attract more of the migrating butterflies. She is even taking her campaign to save the milkweed along Oklahoma's roadsides appealing to the highway department to reduce the spraying programs. She believes every patch of milkweed preserved will hold monarchs if your provide them!
The Bug Whisperer Educates and Entertains
Native Americans Found Many Medicinal Uses for Milkweed
Who better to find uses for the versatile Native American plant than the Native American Tribes of yore.
The Cherokee Native Americans drank a concoction of milkweed root and a type of clematis called "virgin's bower" to calm backaches. They also used it as a laxative, for breast inflammation caused by infection or "mastitis", for kidney stones and edema, and for bee stings and wart removal.
The Iroquois produced a compound with milkweed to prevent hemorrhaging after childbirth and used the leaves for stomach aches.
The Chippewa made a cold remedy using the roots and added it to food to produce postpartum milk flow.
The Ojibwa used the root as a female remedy.
The Potawatomi used the root for bee stings.
The Menominee ate the buds as well as the root for chest discomfort.
Dreams on waking were like empty cocoons of moths or the split-open husks of milkweed pods, dead shells where life had briefly swirled in furious but fragile storm systems. . . Stephen King
Ode to Milkweed
Ode to Milkweed
many a day I overlooked your full beauty
such as the golden riches of your inner pods,
the pink and purple petals of your umbels,
or the intricate scarlet veins of your leaves,
yet, when a child, time and again, I had set your seed tufts free
and watched them fly high into the wind
where my dreams were carried away with a puff