Milkweed? It’s marvelous

Published: May 12, 2020

Monarch on milkweed By Catherine Avilez/Shutterstock

Experts advocate planting milkweed to help our declining monarch butterfly population; the plant is a key food and habitat source. These days, researchers study and harvest it as material for bedding, clothing, insulation, and enviro-friendly products. But milkweed had a slow start at commercial success—the botanist Erika Gaertner once called it “the greatest underachiever among plants.” (Zing!) Plus, its old status as a “noxious weed” still gives it something of a bad rap. (This varies; consult your municipality.) We say milkweed is primed for a breakout year. Check out its past hits:

Ancient times
Milkweed leaf wraps are used as diapers. Probably disposable.

1700s
Because of its medicinal properties, father of taxonomy Carolus Linnaeus names the milkweed genus (Asclepias) after Asklepios, the Greek god of medicine and healing.

1940s
During the Second World War, “floss” (the wispy hairs on the seeds) is used to stuff life preservers. In the U.S., people collected wild milkweed for the government (and—hot dang—were paid: 15 cents per sack of pods!).

1988
Ogallala Comfort Company begins making hypoallergenic bedding using milkweed. As a fibre, milkweed is silky, soft, and resistant to pilling.

2009
The U.S. Agricultural Research Service announces that oil in milkweed seeds could be used as a base for antioxidant-rich and biodegradable sunscreen, plus cosmetics, skin- and hair-care products, epoxies, and paints.

2014
Protec-Style, a Quebec company, makes oil-spill-absorbing “socks” from milkweed. It’s also studying fibres as fill for sleeping bags and boots, and as a soundproofing material.

Here are five native perennials you should plant right now.

This article was originally published in the May 2015 issue of Cottage Life.

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