Ecosystem Mimicking / Perspective Shift / Plants

Common Milkweed and Its Many Uses

Milkweed is one of my favorite plants! I love milkweed so much that a friend posted this meme on my timeline.

Milkweed Meme
My friends know I’m obsessed.

There are so many amazing and fascinating things about milkweed to cover so let’s get started.

Common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) is a plant native to southern Canada and much of the US east of the Rockies. It is both hated by farmers and pristine lawn keepers and loved by ecologists and conservationists. 

The Monarchs and the Menu

Milkweed has particularly seen an increase in attention and acceptance after numbers of the monarch butterfly started suffering. All species of milkweed are a larval host plant for the monarch butterfly. That means the butterfly will lay eggs on the milkweed plant, and when the caterpillar hatches, it eats the milkweed. Scientists seem to agree that monarchs have evolved to develop an immunity to the cardiac glycosides in milkweed plants which in turn makes them toxic to their predators. 

A lot of people know this fact, but they correlate it to a belief that all milkweeds are also toxic to humans. And while most milkweeds are indeed inedible to humans, common milkweed, Asclepias syriaca, is very edible to us. You can eat every part of the common milkweed except for the roots, which can still be used as medicine. You just want to cook it first. 

Here are some recipes from Forager Chef.

Here is a video I made for Project Food Forest a few years ago. It’s not a great video, and no I don’t have a recipe for what I made. I am a fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants type of cook. Just throw stuff together and see if anyone will eat it. But there’s some useful info in there.

Some people are appalled when they hear me advocate for eating milkweed. They worry that if we eat it, it won’t be there for the monarchs. That’s a sweet sentiment, but milkweed is like asparagus, but tougher. If you are eating the shoots in the spring, once you cut them at the base, they will easily resprout from the root. And most people will let them, because then the flower buds, flowers, young pods, and floss/silk are all edible as well. It just keeps giving all summer. And then it comes right on back next summer. In fact, I believe that the more people who know milkweed is edible and grow it for that reason, even more milkweed will be available for monarchs. So go ahead: grow it and eat it. But if you are going to forage from the wild, only take a small portion of what’s there. 

Here’s a video of a monarch caterpillar forming a chrysalis on my house. This caterpillar grew up on my milkweed plants (that I grow and eat some of) then crawled to the rock on our house to pupate (this is a normal behavior — they do not normally pupate on the milkweed plant).

Then a couple weeks later it emerged and flew away as a healthy monarch.

Monarch Butterfly Just Emerged from Chrysalis
Freshly grown and freed wings! The milkweed I grow and eat hosted this beauty.

Ecosystem Enhancement

One of my favorite things about milkweed is its role in its local ecosystem. If you’ve ever grown milkweed, you’ll know what I’m talking about. By mid- to late summer, the leaves will be covered in aphids, ants, eggs, poop, and honeydew. You’ll see tons of either one or both species of milkweed bug, monarchs in all life stages,insect pollinators of all kinds, ants farming aphids for their honeydew, ladybugs eating aphids and laying eggs near them, and wasps and flies coming to sip honeydew from the aphids. Many of the insects that milkweed and its inhabitants attract are predatory insects that eat or parasitize “pest” insects, including wasps (these miraculous insects with a bad rap are very welcome in our yard and none of us, including two kids, have ever been stung). 

I often see people posting pictures of this lively activity in gardening groups, and there is usually at least one gardener advising them to hose it off or remove the plant. No, naughty! It is precisely this activity that makes milkweed so very useful in a guild. “My milkweed brings all the bugs to the yard!” That’s your new singing mantra when you see this happen on your milkweed plants. Rejoice in it. Pay gratitude to it. Teach your kids with it. But don’t hose it. 

Plant Profile

So, milkweed is native, edible, medicinal, and an ecosystem inoculant. What else does it do? Here’s the plant profile.

Common NameCommon Milkweed
Height Min3 ft
Height Max6 ft
Width Min0.5 ft
Width MaxSpreading
Foliage ColorGreen
Flower ColorPurple
Bloom TimeJune-Aug
PollinationInsects, self-fertile
USDA Zone Hardy Perennial Min4
USDA Zone Hardy Perennial Max9
ReproductionRhizome, Underground stem, self-seeding
Native USY
Aggressive Behavior (High, Med, Low)Med
Invasive notesNot invasive where native.
Sun RequirementFull sun
Moisture RequirementAvg
Drought TolerantYes
pH DescriptionCalcareous
N FixationNo
Root StructureRhizome and deep vertical roots reaching up to 12.5 down
Biomass ProductionMedium
Soil PenetrationYes
Edible Leaf/StalkYes
Leaf notesBoil 6″ shoots until tender
Edible FruitYes
Fruit notesBoil pods under 1″. Pods over an inch and before seeds turn brown, remove white floss and add to casserole for cheese substitute
Edible SeedNo
Edible RootNo
Root NotesRoots are medicinal
Edible FlowersYes
Flower notesFlowers and flower buds, but the flowers smell so good and then produce edible fruits and seeds not to mention the nectar for insects! 
Storage Time1 year frozen, canned, or fermented and refrigerated
Poisonous PartsNo
Poisonous notesCommon milkweed (A. syriaca is NOT poisonous. You don’t even need to boil multiple times. Just once. The myth of it’s poisonousness supposedly comes from a forager who tried to boil and eat dogwood shoots instead of milkweed (a poisonous look-alike) and also because monarchs eat milkweeds and become toxic to predators.
Medicinal usesRoot – see medicinal herb site, Milky sap – wart remover
Larval HostYes, Monarch
HummingbirdsIn places where they nest, they will use the floss for nests
Wildlife foodMostly insects
Wildlife shelterYes, invertibrates
Pest ConfusionNo
Fragrance Pleasant to HumansYes, flowers
Deer ResistantYes
Beauty (urban, H, M, L)Medium. High when flowering, lower when leaves are covered with aphids, poop, and honeydew.
FiberYes, stem and floss
Tolerates jugloneYes
Purchase LocationsPrairie Moon Nursery. Usually if you wait, milkweed will just show up. You can also take some seeds from friends or forage them.

Use it!

Milkweed has been used for dye, fiber (both stem and silk), highly bouyant life jacket stuffing and sleeping bag insulation (World War II), spoons (dried pod halves), sugar (processed nectar from blossoms), wart medicine (milky sap), cough medicine (root), and food for hundreds of years. It also increases life activity in our guilds, attracts pollinators and pest predators, accumulates nutrients from the subsoil (usually a purpose of pioneer species), creates winter habitat for tiny wildlife (leave those stems standing until spring), and adds to the mulch each year. Common milkweed is one of the most useful plants in an ecological gardeners’s arsenal. If you can grow it, you definitely should. 

Do you grow milkweed? What uses do you observe?