Common milkweed, also known as butterfly flower, silkweed, or asclepias syriaca, is a rough, weedy, flowering plant native to the eastern US and southern Canada. It is a tall, conspicuous plant that tends to colonize disturbed places. The common milkweed normally thrives in a wide variety of habitats including pastures, ditches, crop fields, and roadsides.
Common milkweed is the plant that comes into the minds of most people when the word “milkweed” is mentioned. However, there are more than 100 species of this herb native to the US. Milkweeds got their name from the sappy fluid containing cardiac glycosides they produce when their leaves are crushed.
The common milkweed is an important part of nature as it is the sole source of food for monarch butterflies. When ingested by these insects, the cardiac glycoside in the plant makes the butterflies less susceptible to predators as its flesh tastes distasteful. In addition, these butterflies depend on the plant for propagation by laying their eggs on the underside of the leaves. When the larvae hatch, they feed on the leaves until they turn into a pupa.
Milkweed brings forth beautiful balls of purple to pink blossoms with a sweet fragrance in mid-summer. Each flower features 5 reflexed petals and a white crown at the center which is surrounded by purplish-pink, white, fleshy hoods.
In spite of ifs toxic juices, the plant’s flowers and buds are edible when cooked. To make these aerial parts edible, they have to be boiled for at least 5 minutes with no less than one change of water to get rid of the toxins.
The Right Flowers in Your Inbox!
Sign up for our free notifications of new articles!
In addition, Pehr Kalm, a Swedish traveler, reported that French settlers in Canada used to make sugar from the dew-covered blossoms of the common milkweed. According to his observations, the French would harvest the flowers very early in the morning when they were still dew-covered. They would press out the dew and boil the resulting liquid, which gave way to a sweet, brown sugar-like substance.
There are also reports of the natives drying the sap from the plant over a fire. The bitter taste seemed to wane with the overnight drying and the resulting gummy substance served as chewing gum.
In small amounts, common milkweed flowers can be eaten raw. The blossoms can be sprinkled on salads, soups, and meats including fish.
Ultimately, whether you choose to grow the common milkweed for its beautiful, fragrant flowers, your love for monarchs or for its culinary qualities, this wildflower is a great asset in your garden.