Asclepias syriaca (common milkweed, wild cotton, silkweed, cotton weed)

description: herbaceous perennial

place of origin: eastern North America

urban habitat: grows best in open sun and can thrive in disturbed habitats with high pH levels in soil; found in un-mowed meadows, sandy roadsides, vacant lots, along railroad tracks.

ecological function:
disturbance-adapted colonizer of bare ground; host plant for larvae of the Monarch butterfly; produces nectar.

history: Deforestation has expanded the range of Asclepias syriaca so it is now found throughout the US, Canada, and in parts of Europe where it is considered invasive. The follicles were gathered during World War II for their fluffy seeds, to use as a substitute for the fiber obtained from the seedpods of the Kapok tree, for use in emergency flotation devices. Unsuccessful attempts have been made to industrialize the production of rubber and fiber from the plant. Asclepias syriaca was a staple for Native Americans who chewed the dried latex and used the inner bark fiber to create textiles and rope. An infusion of the pounded roots was used by the women of some native North American Indian tribes to promote temporary sterility. The roots were used to treat a variety of ailments: made into tea to treat heart, kidney, respiratory, and skin aliments and to instigate lactation after childbirth. The leaves and/or the latex are used in folk remedies for treating cancer and tumors and the milky latex from the stems and leaves is used in the treatment of warts. It is used in homeopathic remedies to stimulate menstrual flow and for treatment of dropsy. The plant also has a long history as use in human food and is edible when cooked, although raw, its leaves and seedpods are toxic to sheep and other large mammals. The unopened cooked flower buds are used like broccoli and are said to taste like peas. When boiled, the flower clusters make a brown sugary syrup. The latex in the stems can be made into a chewing gum.