Butterfly Milkweed

Family: Asclepiadaceae (Milkweed)

Scientific Name: Asclepias tuberosa

Perennial herb found on roadways, abandoned farmlands, open woodlands, and prairies. Sandy, loamy, or rocky limestone soils.

Watch for: Lance-shaped alternate leaves smooth above and velvet beneath. Flowers are a showy orange, with 5 petals which together form a rounded group on the top. Usually the flash of orange along highways in summer.

Other names: Orange milkweed, Pleurisy Root, Chigger weed.

History: The genus name is derived from the Greek god of medicine; Asklepios. Butterfly Milkweed has been used for fiber and rope all over the United States and Southern Canada. Fibers from the stems and seeds have been identified in prehistoric textiles in the Pueblo region. Fibers made into yarn were then woven into garments. The Omaha First Nations chewed it and placed it into wounds and sores for healing. It could also be dried or pulverized and blown into wounds. Anglo-Americans used it as a medicine to relieve inflammation of the lining of the lungs and thorax, calling it “pleurisy root”.

Tidbits: As a type of milkweed, it contains a glycoside which is poisonous to birds, small mammals, livestock, and humans. Monarch butterflies have adapted to feeding on this plant to use the glycoside as a defense. The color markings of a Monarch become an indicator to birds that this is “bad food”! The Viceroy, although not poisonous, mimics the Monarch’s color pattern to hitch a ride on this defense strategy. Symptoms of poisoning by glycosides include dullness, weakness, bloating, inability to stand, rapid and weak pulse, and difficulty breathing.

Similar subspecies have been shown to inhibit cell growth of human cancer.

Gardens/Cultivation: Butterfly Milkweed is best suited for sunny locations with sandy soil. Cultivars such as “Hello Yellow” are readily available at many nurseries within it’s natural range. It is best to plant a species locally adapted to your area. Butterfly Milkweed is excellent for wildlife, readily attracting insects, bees, and butterflies which are experiecing habitat shortages around the country. As numbers of Monarchs are declining with changing migratory routes, Butterfly Milkweed holds a high value as native habitat in urban and rural landscapes.


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