The Mountain Laurel
The Journal of Mountain Life

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from the
Heart of the Blue Ridge

Wild Things 'n Stuff - Milkweed

By Sarah Bee © 1986

Issue: April, 1986

Hiking down a footpath in the Blue Ridge Mountains, I stopped to rest and there beside me stood a tall and stately milkweed, as proud as a military soldier in full dress. I stopped to smell the fragrance of the tiny flowers and suddenly I realized I had never heard one nice thing about the milkweed. Only farmers calling them bad names for poking their heads up all over the pasture and opening their seed pods with their parachute-like feathery seeds, to be borne by the wind to the far corners of the earth, making them impossible to control. I said aloud, "Well, the butterflies like you and you must be good for something." With this in mind, I hurried home to do some research.

The lovely Milkweed (Asclepias) is a perennial pot herb with milky juice (latex) in the leaves and stalks, hence the name. All parts are edible and the milky juice is the subject of numerous experiments seeking a native rubber. The sprouts when about six inches tall are good when cooked like asparagus. Young leaves can be prepared like spinach. Young buds or seedpods can also be boiled like potatoes or batter dipped and fried. All parts of the milkweed are bitter and should be boiled in water and that water poured off and re-boiled at least twice or more, depending on your palate.

There is one poisonous variety in the Western United States, so remember, never to eat any wild herb without positive identification. Do not try to identify it by the milky sap alone, as other plants have a similar milky substance.

Some varieties of milkweed are fragrant and some are not. If you are lucky enough to find one that is, you are in for a wonderful treat to your senses.

The lowly milkweed was used by Indians for making string and rope and for course weaving. The milky juice has been used medicinally as a treatment for ring-worm infections as well as for sores, cuts and wart removal. The ripe seed pods were ground into a salve for sores and also applied to draw the poison out of rattlesnake bites.

People used to make a hot beverage by steeping the roots in water and served it as a cough syrup. It was also taken to bring out the rash in measles. It was supposed to help rheumatism when externally applied.

It was said that life jackets were stuffed with its downy fluff during World War II.

The dried seed pods are pretty in flower arrangements and the pods can also be made into pretty Christmas tree ornaments.

There are 150 species native to Africa, North and South America, about 60 of them are in the United States.

This writer has identified six species from the Shenandoah Valley to the Smokey Mountains. Most varieties stand from 2 to 5 feet tall and have from two to four leaves 4 to 9 inches long. The tiny flower clusters are pink or white and bloom from June to August. They produce a 3 to 5 inch seed pod. In the late fall, the warty coverings split open exposing the feathery topped seeds.

In the future this hiker will certainly have more respect for this lowly, but valuable plant. Remember, when you're hiking the trails of the Blue Ridge, stop to smell the Ro... uh! Milkweeds!