The Story of Milkweed

milkweed gone to seedBy Dr. Orrin Shane

Maine’s hearty pod-bearing milkweed is an essential part of seasonal change. The stalky perennial provides annual food and shelter to butterflies in all stages of metamorphosis. The insects depend on the safe haven provided by Maine’s three types of milkweed plants: the sun-loving butterfly and common types and the purple-flowered swamp variety. Maine gardeners also plant non-native species as ornamentals or to attract butterflies.

Found primarily in North America, the plant provides butterflies and caterpillars shelter, food and defense against predators. Monarchs, for example, lay their eggs almost exclusively on milkweed. After hatching, monarch larvae feed on the leaves, ingesting the plant’s toxins. This brilliant trick of nature makes both caterpillars and butterflies unpalatable to predators such as birds and small rodents.

Despite its toxic components, milkweed has been used medicine over the ages. Called Wah’tha or “raw medicine” by the Omaha nation, milkweed is well known to Native Americans as a cure for a variety of ailments, such as skin conditions, stomach ailments, chest pains and the the common cold.  Early European settlers called milkweed “pleurisy root” and used an infusion to relieve lung inflammation. The U.S. government listed the root of butterfly milkweed as an official herbal remedy from 1820 to 1936.

Native American ate milkweed too, ingesting the young shoots, flowers, and young green fruits of milkweed. The shoots have been compared to asparagus, the unopened buds to broccoli.

Every day use of milkweed spans a millennium. While working at the Science Museum of Minnesota I organized an exhibition on Native American farming life in eastern North America from 1,000 to 500 years ago. Preserved cloth from the time was found to have been made from yarn of milkweed and rabbit fur.

Under their guidance of Dakota tribal elders, we undertook this ancient cloth-making method. We harvested stems of common milkweed in early fall and then soaked them in pond water for three weeks. The process allowed for easy separation of fibers which were then spun with cottontail rabbit fur using a hand-operated drop spindle. The result was a very strong grey-white yarn that we used to weave panels. From that we constructed a six-foot traditional loin cloth.

Sources for this article: United States Department of Agriculture, Natural Resources Conservation Service Plant Profiles,

The author is a former program officer at the National Science Foundation’s Informal Science Education program. He has served as an advisor and consultant for numerous exhibits at prestigious institutions, including the National Museum of the American Indian, a component of the Smithsonian Institute. Mr. Shane has a longstanding commitment to citizen science.