Wednesday, August 3, 2016
MILKWEED: Asclepias Syriaca, Asclepias Speciosa, Asclepias Incarnata, Asclepias Tuberosa, Asclepias Curassavica, etc.
Also known as: Butterfly weed, pleurisy root, blood flower, swamp milkweed, common milkweed, showy milkweed, whorled milkweed, etc.
Parts Used: young shoots, leaves, flower buds, seed pods, roots
Systems/Organs affected: skin, respiratory, intestinal, lymph, blood, kidneys, gallbladder, liver
Properties: diaphoretic, anti-rheumatic, antispasmodic, alterative, diuretic, stomachic, escharotic (salves produce a thick scab to rid the body of toxins), expectorant, astringent, carminative, laxative, anti-pleuritic, anti-syphilitic, emetic, tonic, lithotriptic, detoxifying, sudorific, cathartic
Milkweed is a member of the Asclepiadaceae family. There are over 100 species of milkweed mainly found in North America and Southern Africa. Some grow like a shrub and some can get up to 12 feet tall while others are straight-stemmed perennials. The leaves vary per species, some are smooth while others have a wooly texture and some are broad while others are more threadlike. The leaf location on the stem also varies per species. Some will be opposite, some in whorls and some alternate. There are even some desert varieties that have few, if any, leaves at all. The flowers are rather showy and borne in clusters referred to as cymes. They are generally found at the end of the stem or in the leaf axils depending on the type. At the top of each flower are a bunch of pockets or pouches-each full of nectar. This attracts a number of insects who alight on the flower and let their legs dip down into the grooves catching a mass of pollen. The insects then fly off to another flower and another, thus pollinating the entire group as they fly along their path. The flowers that get pollinated will produce spindle shaped seed pods. These pods will vary according to the variety. Some will be spiny, some silky smooth and yet others will be rather warty looking. Inside the pods are seeds that have long silky hair. When the pods finally open the hairs on these seeds act like parachutes, carrying the seeds to some new region to start anew. Milkweed also has a milky sap it bleeds when broken or wounded and can be irritating to the skin for some people.
Milkweed is a term given to a few plants so the Latin is IMPORTANT to know. The milkweed we speak of here will always have asclepias in front of the latin variety. Do not mistake it for dogbane (a somewhat poisonous plant also referred to as milkweed) or petty spurge (a medicinal plant that is NOT related to milkweed but it too is referred to as milkweed).
Milkweed is named after Asklepios who was the Greek god of Medicine. It is highly prized by many native cultures both as a food and as a medicine. There is some debate of whether milkweed should be consumed after two boilings or more, as it is rather bitter. However, the common milkweed is said to be sweet and doesn't require all that processing. Perhaps the most well known of the milkweeds is asclepias tuberosa, also known as pleurisy root. It has been used for a number of health issues including respiratory problems, fevers, lymph issues, bone and joint complaints, digestive disorders and sexually transmitted diseases to name a few. The sap of asclepias speciosa (showy milkweed) and common milkweed (asclepias syriaca) has been used for skin issues, ringworm and warts. The root extracts of swamp milkweed (a. incarnata) and common milkweed have been used for intestinal parasites. Apparently it is so effective that the USDA has been looking into using it to fight nematodes. (Would be nice to have something other than RoundUP for a change).
The Native Americans would use chaparral leaf tea and milkweed juice to draw out poison. The Shoshones would roll the milky sap into balls and chew it (which I hear isn't recommended). The Mohawk would make an infusion of the root with Jack-in-the-Pulpit and consume it as a contraceptive (also said to be dangerous by various sources). Jethro Kloss used it to help soften kidney and gall stones so they could be removed more easily by the body. He also said that it was great for stomach issues, asthma, female complaints, bowel issues and can be used in the place of lobelia. Alma Hogan Snell wrote of milkweed in her book, 'A Taste of Heritage: Crow Indian Recipes and Herbal Medicines' concerning its use for swollen, arthritic joints. She stated,
" One man's knee was so bad he couldn't walk. He was trying to get around on crutches when her ran into a very old Indian lady. She asked what was wrong. He showed her the knee that was so swollen and red and hurting. She went and picked some milkweed and brought back the milky part of it. She mixed it with a little water so that it would be easy to take down. He took it. He took it for four days, about one-half cup per day. Now he's walking about. There's nothing wrong with his knees." (Clearly this could be something to consider for arthritics).
The powdered root has been used in teas for stomach aches, as a sedative and for asthma. The fresh roots were boiled for an infusion used in the treatment of edema, bowel disorders, parasite infections, venereal disease, rheumatism and more. The seeds were boiled to make a liquid used to draw poison from snake bites or they were pulverized and put into salves for sores and wounds. The sap was applied to burns, moles, poison ivy, rash, corns, measles, etc.
In WWII the Japanese threatened to control the world's supply of rubber trees so milkweed was actually considered at that time as a possible substitute. (The sap when dried is quite rubbery).
The plant was also used by a number of native tribes to make nets, baskets, cords, etc. They used the silky hairs to line cradles and beds. The Europeans wove the silk into fabric and in WWII school children gathered bags of the silk to stuff into life jackets, pillow and comforters as it was found to be a better insulator than feathers. It is often combined with flax and cotton to make thread. Mixed with other plants it also makes an assortment of dyes.
Milkweed has been used as an edible as well. The flower heads have been fried in batter or boiled with the buds to make a thick syrup (said to be sweet). They have also been used to make jam and/or preserves. (The flower buds come in early summer, resemble immature heads of broccoli and can be harvested for roughly seven weeks). The flower buds are also used in casseroles (mostly rice based), stir fry, soup, etc. The seedpods can be boiled like vegetables and added to stews or mixed with other vegetables when cooking. The young shoots are said to taste similar to okra or asparagus when cooked. The silk is also edible and has a cheesy flavor and consistency when cooked so can be added to rice, potatoes, eggs and more.
Milkweed contains beta-carotene and vitamin C as well as several beneficial acids (linoleic, oleic, palmitic, linolenic,etc.). It is the only food for the famed Monarch butterfly whose numbers are dying out due to the killing off of the plants with herbicides. This has also affected the bee populace. Jim Robbins (journalist) made mention of this in his writings,
"On the first of November, when Mexicans celebrate a holiday called the Day of the Dead, some also celebrate the millions of monarch butterflies that, without fail, fly into the mountainous fir forests of central Mexico on that day. They are believed to be souls of the dead, returned. This year, for the first time in memory, the monarch butterflies didn't come, at least not on the Day of the Dead. They began to straggle in a week later than usual, in record low numbers. Last year's low of 60 million now seems great compared with the fewer than three million that have shown up so far this year. Some experts fear that the spectacular migration could be near collapse." (One study in Iowa showed up to 90% loss of milkweed in the region due to RoundUp).
Milkweed also contains small amounts of cardioactive glycosides (things that mimic digitalis) so it should not be used by those with heart conditions, high blood pressure or those on MAO inhibitors (anti-depressants) or are on other heart medications. It shouldn't be used by the elderly, children under three or pregnant or nursing women. Always consult a physician before starting any herbal supplement or regimen.
As is customary with my posts you will find links below for your perusal. Stay strong and healthy!