Monarchs need your help NOW! In the past 10 years, over 75% of the wintering Monarchs from North America froze to death in Mexico as a result of three days of rain and sub-freezing conditions. They have sprung back in numbers but there is a Nationwide shortage of milkweed. Freak weather patterns destroy habitats and kill millions of helpless Monarchs. Habitat must be protected now to ensure their survival, before we see the day when this miracle of nature is only a memory. The Monarchs need your help NOW. Please plant seeds and ensure their survival.
While Flora of West Virginia lists 11 types of milkweed in our state, over 100 species grow around the planet, most of them perennial. Swamp Milkweed (A. incarnata), Four-leaved Milkweed (A. quadrifolia), Common Milkweed (A. syriaca), and Butterfly Weed or Pleurisy Root (A. tuberosa) occur most often in our region. The standout here is Butterfly Weed, not only for its purpose, but also for its showy orange flowers compared to the pale-rose to purple hues of the other three milkweeds.
Due to the alkaloids in the leaves and stems, most animals avoid milkweed. When Monarch butterfly larvae eat milkweed, they ingest the plants’ toxins called cardiac glycosides. These toxic substances are stored in the butterflies’ wings and exoskeletons, which predators quickly learn taste bitter.
While reports of gastric upset have occurred after ingestion of large quantities of milkweed, virtually all parts of these plants are edible when cooked properly. Many folks who like fresh greens know that the first early shoots of most milkweeds are edible (and delicious!), but the younger parts on old growth can also be eaten. Talk with a friend or neighbor who collects spring greens to discover the best way to prepare the nutritious shoots for the table and the canning jar.
Young, unopened flower buds and young seed pods share a sweet, pea-like flavor when steamed. Be sure the seed pods contain no “silk” or floss yet. As kids we’d pinch off the stem end of honeysuckle flowers and suck out the nectar; milkweed flowers produce such copious amounts of nectar, they sometimes form crystalline lumps of sugary nectar that can be picked off and enjoyed. While still damp from dew, harvest the flowers and gently cook them down to a sugary syrup akin to brown sugar. (Gourmet pancake and waffle topping, perhaps?) The flowers are also used to thicken soups and stews, similar to okra’s properties.
Except for Butterfly Weed, the other milkweeds’ stems contain latex, milky like dandelion sap, which is used for chewing gum and is a folk remedy for warts when applied fresh several times daily for a few weeks. And Butterfly Weed grows from a tuberous root (hence the Latin name) which, when cooked, is edible with a nut-like flavor. Milkweed seeds contain an edible oil, although huge numbers of seeds are needed to obtain enough oil for use.. There are reports that seeds, when sprouted, are also edible, although I’ve not tried them.
Not just another pretty flower, Butterfly Weed, aka Pleurisy Root, ranks high in medicinal characteristics. The root of this long-used tonic herb calms spasms, increases perspiration and improves expectoration, all which relieves the pain of–you guessed it-pleurisy or inflammation of the lung lining. I can personally vouch for its exceptional healing capabilities with pneumonia and pleurisy.
White settlers and North American Indians used it internally to treat a range of lung diseases, as well as diarrhea, rheumatism and dysentery. After the seeds mature, harvest the root in fall for fresh or dried use. While a poultice of the powered root is helpful to treat skin ulcers, wounds, etc., other more common herbs are equally or more effective.
The dried, open seed pods still attached to the stem make interesting accents in dried floral arrangements. Generations of children have enjoyed sending seed pod “boats” floating down a lazy creek, as well as helping a new generation of seeds catch a brisk early autumn breeze on silky parachute floss. The plentiful white silk is buoyant, soft and water repellent, and has been used to stuff soft toys, pillows and life jackets. The fluff has also mopped up oil spills at sea, can be used for candle wicks and, although hard to spin on its own, when mixed with other fibers makes excellent cloth. After the first hard frost in late autumn, pull the good quality fibers off the dried stems to make twine and cloth.