A firestarter and a healer, Milkweed offers myriad usesPublished 12:57pm Friday, August 2, 2013
Though you may easily recognize its cluster of milky white flowers surrounded by hungry butterflies in the spring, its summer attire is slightly silkier. Named for the latex-laden fluid which oozes out of the stem when you compromise its integrity, milkweed also possesses a descriptive Latin moniker—Asclepius–so named for the Greek god of healing, thanks to its many non-traditional medicinal uses.
The silky structure you see this time of year is its stylish version of seed dispersal. The seeds, produced in follicles, are arranged in overlapping rows with white, silky, filamentous hairs called pappus, silk, or floss. As the follicles ripen and split open, the seeds (transported by dried pappi) are at the mercy of the wind to effectively disperse.
Those free-flowing filaments are more than just dispersal aids, according to research. The soft follicle filaments are hollow, wax-coated and insulating–perfect for a hypoallergenic pillow filler, mattress filler, quilt filler or fire-starter.
Aside from its claim as an insulator, this plant is the sole food source of monarch butterfly larvae, a species that is immune to the latex toxin contained within the plant for defense. In fact, these butterflies use this poisonous power to their advantage by accumulating enough of the poison to make them repulsive to predators.
Despite its toxic plant parts, the Native Americans and early settlers claimed they could cook the plant properly for safe consumption. They also utilized the milky sap to remove warts and used the roots to cure dysentery, suppress coughs and treat fever and asthma.
Thankfully, the nectar poses no poison problem for bees and other insects. Native Americans also harvested this dextrose-filled fluid for a natural sweetener. This sweet treat begins with some unusual pollination. Pollen for the Asclepius genus members is grouped into multifaceted pollen sacs called pollinia. Adjacent anthers form five slits in each flower, allowing visiting insects to become temporarily wedged. The bases of the pollinia attach to these visitors, and then break free when insects take their leave. Pollination may also occur when one of the pollinia becomes ensnared by the anther slit.
An advanced trap to ensure pollination, toxic sap to avoid predation, fluffy filaments to aid distribution: Milkweed is one mastermind of the botanical world.