Nature Bulletin No. 162-A September 26, 1964
Forest Preserve District of Cook County
Seymour Simon, President
David H. Thompson, Senior Naturalist
From the time their first green shoots appear in spring until their
brown stalks stand above the snow in winter, the milkweeds have a
variety of uses and features of interest. The common name refers to
milky juice that oozes from stems and leaves when they are cut or
broken. Because the roots of milkweeds were used as drugs, their
scientific name, Asclepias, was taken from that of the Greek god of
The Common Milkweed so often seen in fields, waste places, and
along roadsides is the largest and most familiar of the dozen or more
kinds found in the Chicago region. The large oval leaves are arranged
in pairs on the tall stout stem so that if one pair points east and
the pair above and the pair below point north and south. Like other
milkweeds it is a perennial reproducing both from seeds and long
shallow roots that live over the winter.
The "milk" is not the sap of the plant but a special secretion.
Extremely bitter, it serves as a protection against most nibbling and
grazing animals. On the contrary, milkweed leaves are the only food
the caterpillar of our monarch butterfly. Also, this milk quickly seals
any wound on the plant because it contains latex and, as it dries,
becomes very sticky and elastic, turning into a kind of crude rubber.
See how a drop of the milk makes your thumb and fingers cling
together. Like rubber cement, it cannot be washed off with soap and
water. During World War II when imports of natural rubber from the
rubber tree were cut off, the milkweed was tested as a possible
In spring, the tender shoots can be boiled and eaten like asparagus.
autumn, the roots are still collected and marketed in small amounts
the drugs they contain. Formerly, these were common remedies for
lung trouble and rheumatism. The Indians made twine from the coarse
strong fibers in the bark of the stalk. The dead stalks with their
picturesque empty pods are favorites for making winter bouquets and
The common milkweed bears clusters of dull purple flowers with a
heavy cloying odor which, though unpleasant to us, is unusually
attractive to bees and butterflies. Each flower of the cluster has
elaborate trap to catch the legs of these insects and remove any pollen
they may carry. Sometimes the insect cannot escape and pays with its
life for the nectar it came to drink. Indians produced sugar by shaking
the honeydew from its blooms in early morning and drying it.
Each cluster of blossoms is followed by one or two large warty pods
with a seam along one side which pops open when the pod becomes
ripe and dry. Inside is a closely packed roll of several hundred flat
brown seeds arranged like scales on a fish, each with a folded
parachute of fine silky fibers. Gradually, these parachutes open and
seeds are carried away on the fall winds. During the war, hundreds
tons of milkweed pods were gathered by school children and the silky
fluff processed as a substitute for kapok, used to pad life jackets
The Butterfly Weed or Pleurisy Root with its glowing orange flowers
the most beautiful of the milkweeds. Unlike other milkweeds, it lacks
the milky juice. The Indians used its roots for medicine and cooked
green pods with their buffalo meat much as we use green peppers. The
Swamp Milkweed bears masses of brilliant red or rose-purple flowers
which are followed by pencil-slender pods. The dainty Whorled
Milkweed has tiny greenish white flowers and very slender leaves.
Mixed with hay crops it can be poisonous to livestock.
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Update: June 2012