Wednesday, February 12, 2014

As a child, I spent many hours wandering the woods and swimming in creeks. I suspect that my generation of kids was the last who were let out of their parents’ sight all day, to go who-knows-where, as long as we were home for dinner.

I collected tadpoles and salamanders. Unfortunately, I also killed them by trying to keep them as pets in jars at home. I also picked flowers, learned what poison ivy was, and collected leaves. One of the plants that fascinated me was milkweed. The prickly pod, considered the fruit, held seeds that were attached to lovely white, soft down (sometimes called floss) that flew in the air when I threw it.

Milkweed, like so many other common plants, is quite versatile and has a rich history of medicinal and other uses. Here is a list of some of some historical and contemporary uses of milkweed. 

  • Infusions of milkweed roots and leaves were given to ill patients to suppress coughs. The same infusion was used to treat typhus fever and asthma.
  • The roots were chewed to cure dysentery.
  • The sap of the plant was used to remove warts. (This sap has poisons in it called Cardiac Glycosides, which are used in synthetic form as heart regulators. However, its misuse can cause irregular heartbeat, vomiting, and other nasty things.)
  • The stem's tough, stringy fibers were twisted into strong twine and rope, or woven into coarse fabric.
  • The fluffy white floss, attached to milkweed's flat brown seeds, could be used to stuff pillows, mattresses, and quilts and was carried as tinder to start fires.
  • Monarch butterflies are particularly attracted to the milkweed’s flowers.
  • It was a regular food item for all Native American tribes within its broad range.
  • It’s said the purple buds of the milkweed plant can be eaten as a substitute for broccoli.

Next week I'll be writing about another familiar plant I played with as a child.

Disclaimer: I am not recommending milkweed be used as medicine or food. Please do not hold me or the Borrowed Book team responsible if you decide to eat milkweed seeds and get the floss caught in your teeth. I also don’t recommend chowing down on milkweed pods. Besides the fact that they look nasty and prickly, they would feel icky in your mouth. They probably taste bad, too. Some people claim that (contrary to claims of herbalists) milkweed can make you sick, most likely due to the Cardiac Glycosides mentioned above. I don’t know. I’ve never tried it, and I probably won’t. 


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