Calling a plant a weed implies it is unwanted, undesirable or even a problem. “Weeds” are often plants that people don’t want in their yards and may even work hard to remove. But it’s time to rethink that idea, especially when talking about milkweed.
Yes, it has weed in the name, but milkweed is far from undesirable. Its many talents should transform it from being seen as an unwanted weed to a must-have flower. It might just be the most talented plant around. You decide.
Talent No. 1: Species survival
Do you like spotting monarch butterflies flitting through a field, a park or, best yet, your yard? Then you need to love milkweed too. Imagine only being able to eat one food for the rest of your life – breakfast, lunch and dinner. What would you choose? Monarch caterpillars don’t have a choice, but they do only eat one food. If you guessed it is milkweed, give yourself a high five!
Monarch caterpillars munch and munch on milkweed leaves and more milkweed leaves and even more milkweed leaves. They eat nothing but milkweed leaves. Monarch butterflies know this is what their caterpillars need to survive. They lay their eggs on milkweed leaves so that as soon as the caterpillars hatch, they are standing right on their food source and can start eating the right food right away. Imagine sitting in a huge dish of your favorite food, just taking bites whenever you feel hungry. How convenient!
Talent No. 2: Pollinator party
Monarchs aren’t the only insects that benefit from milkweed. The flowers on milkweed plants are full of sweet nectar that pollinators seek. Monarch butterflies, of course, but swallowtail butterflies, moths, flies and beetles all visit milkweed to sip the nectar. While stopping for a sip, they end up picking up pollen and transferring it to other flowering plants. Transferring pollen helps seeds form. But not just seeds, also fruits. Some plants form fruit around their seeds, like raspberries and apples. What fruit would you miss if there weren’t pollinators visiting and making it happen?
Talent No. 3: Terrifically toxic
Wait, how is being toxic a talent? Doesn’t toxic mean harmful? Just like the word weed, toxic has negative connotations. But maybe there’s two sides to the story.
Milkweed is named for the milky sap found in its stems, leaves and pods. If any of those parts are cracked, you can see a thick, white substance dripping out. That sap is toxic to some creatures. It tastes bad and can make them sick. But it isn’t toxic to all creatures. Think back to talent No. 1. Monarch caterpillars only eat milkweed leaves. That sap is not toxic to them. Quite the opposite — it gives them a superpower against their predators. By eating the sap, the caterpillars become toxic to their predators. Birds, chipmunks or other animals that make a meal of a monarch caterpillar or butterfly are in for an unfortunate surprise. Monarchs taste terrible and can make them sick.
Monarchs aren’t the only ones though. Milkweed beetles also benefit from this same toxic superpower. So being toxic is positive for the prey and negative for predators. Two sides to the story. Whose side are you on?
Talent No. 4: Medicine maker
Milkweed is a part of the genus asclepias named for the Greek god of medicine and healing, Asclepios. Asclepios is a great namesake for milkweed as it has many medicinal uses. Throughout history the sap was used to soothe bee stings and treat ringworm and warts.
Words to know
Blanch: To briefly cook food in boiling water. Buoyant: Able to stay afloat. Foraging: To search for food. Medicinal: Having healing properties. Pollinator: A species that moves pollen to a plant to allow for fertilization. Soothe: To gently calm, reduce pain or ease discomfort.
The roots were steeped in water to make tea used to treat coughs, asthma and other respiratory, or breathing, issues.
Talent No. 5: Tasty treat
Hungry? All parts of the milkweed plant are edible to humans. But don’t just go out and take a big bite out a leaf! Before eating milkweed, or any plant, it’s important to make sure you know how and when to eat each part. Humans aren’t adapted to turn that toxic sap to a toxic superpower.
To remove the toxicity, milkweed needs to be blanched, or quickly cooked, in boiling water or steam and then cooled in ice water. Take the tiniest sip of nectar from the flowers like a pollinator. The flowers can be steeped in sugar water to make a syrup. The young pods can be stuffed with cheese like ravioli. There are many recipes in foraging guidebooks and online. But never, ever eat milkweed (or any other plant) unless you’re 100% sure it is safe.
Talent No. 6: Fantastic fiber
Those stems are made of fibers, like long, strong threads. The fibers can be used as fishing line or woven into cloth or rope. Watch this video to learn how and try it yourself. How many different ways can a rope come in handy?
Talent No. 7: Floatable floss
The fibers in the stem are useful enough to set milkweed apart from other plants. But as multitalented as milkweed is, it has a second kind of fiber with a new set of uses! Milkweed pods hold their seeds. Attached to each seed is a white, fluffy fiber called floss. The floss is soft enough to fill pillows and blankets. It is warmer than wool to keep you cozy. Hummingbirds even use it to line their nests!
The floss is also buoyant, meaning it floats. In fact, it’s so buoyant it can save your life! Don’t believe it? During World War II, milkweed floss was used to fill life preservers.
Of course, floss isn’t only important for human use. Milkweeds benefit too. The floss is lightweight and floats on the breeze. It’s like each seed is attached to its own parachute, carrying it off to a new place to grow where it won’t have to compete for space and water with all the other seeds in its pod. Sounds like another common plant — dandelions. Do you think it would work to make a wish on milkweed seeds?
Talent No. 8: Fire starter
At the end of the growing season, milkweed stems and pods start to dry out and crack. If you find a pod in your yard with some fluff still in it, you’ve found yourself a fire starter. Squeeze the fluff together into a ball at the bottom of the pod. Place it at the base of the wood pile for your campfire. Light it like kindling to get your fire started. Maybe take one pinch of seeds out first and send them off on the wind.
Cast your vote!
These are just the talents we know about so far. Researchers are seeking out new ways to use milkweed. What else is waiting to be discovered?
So what do you think? Does milkweed win the talent show of plants? Crown milkweed the winner by planting it in your yard. Choose the perfect variety for your space from common milkweed, butterfly weed, swamp milkweed and more.
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