Herb: Common Milkweed

Latin name: Asclepias syriaca

Synonyms: Asclepias cornuttii

Family: Asclepiadaceae (Milkweed Family)

Medicinal use of Common Milkweed:

The root is anodyne, diaphoretic, diuretic, emetic, expectorant and purgative. It has been used in the treatment of asthma, kidney stones, venereal disease etc. Caution is advised, see the notes above on toxicity. An infusion of the pounded roots has been used by the women of some native North American Indian tribes to promote temporary sterility. The leaves and/or the latex are used in folk remedies for treating cancer and tumours. The milky latex from the stems and leaves is used in the treatment of warts. The latex needs to be applied at least daily over a period of up to a few weeks to be effective. The stems can be cooked and applied as a poultice on rheumatic joints. One reported Mohawk antifertility concoction contained milkweed and jack-in-the-pulpit, both considered contraceptive. Dried and pulverized, a fistful of milkweed and three Arisaema rhizomes were infused in a pint of water for 20 minutes. The infusion was drunk, a cupful an hour, to induce temporary sterility. The rhizome is used in homeopathy as an antioedemic and emmenagogue in the treatment of dropsy and dysmenorrhoea.

Description of the plant:


100 cm
(3 1/4 foot)

July to


Habitat of the herb:

Thickets, roadsides, dry fields and waste places.

Edible parts of Common Milkweed:

Unopened flower buds - cooked. They taste somewhat like peas. They are used like broccoli. Flowers and young flower buds - cooked. They have a mucilaginous texture and a pleasant flavour, they can be used as a flavouring and a thickener in soups etc. The flower clusters can be boiled down to make a sugary syrup. The flowers are harvested in the early morning with the dew still on them. When boiled up they make a brown sugar. Young shoots - cooked. An asparagus substitute. They should be used when less than 20cm tall. A slightly bitter taste. Tips of older shoots are cooked like spinach. Young seed pods, 3 - 4 cm long, cooked. They are very appetizing. Best used when about 2 - 4cm long and before the seed floss forms, on older pods remove any seed floss before cooking them. If picked at the right time, the pods resemble okra. The sprouted seeds can be eaten. An edible oil is obtained from the seed. The latex in the stems is a suitable replacement for chicle and can be made into a chewing gum. It is not really suitable for use in tyres. The latex is found mainly in the leaves and is destroyed by frost. Yields are higher on dry soils.

Other uses of the herb:

A good quality fibre is obtained from the inner bark of the stems. It is long and quite strong, but brittle. It can be used in making twine, cloth, paper etc. The fibre is of poor quality in wet seasons. It is easily harvested in late autumn after the plant has died down by simply pulling the fibres off the dried stems. It is estimated that yields of 1,356 kilos per hectare could be obtained from wild plants. The seed floss is used to stuff pillows etc or is mixed with other fibres to make cloth. It is a Kapok substitute, used in Life Jackets or as a stuffing material. Very water repellent, it can yield up to 550 kilos per hectare. The floss absorbs oil whilst repelling water and so has also been used to mop up oil spills at sea. Candlewicks can be made from the seed floss. In cultivation, only 1 - 3% of the flowers produce mature pods. It is estimated that yields of 1,368 kilos per hectare could be obtained from wild plants. Rubber can be made from latex contained in the leaves and the stems. It is found mainly in the leaves and is destroyed by frost. Yields of 197 kilos per hectare can be expected from wild plants, it is estimated that by selection these yields could be increased to 897 kilos. Yields are higher on dry soils. The latex can also be used as a glue for fixing precious stones into necklaces, earrings etc. The latex contains 0.1 - 1.5% caoutchouc, 16 - 17% dry matter, and 1.23% ash. It also contains the digitalis-like mixture of a- and b-asclepiadin, the antitumor b-sitosterol, and a- and b-amyrin and its acetate, dextrose and wax. Pods contain an oil and a wax which are of potential importance. The seed contains up to 20% of an edible semi-drying oil. It is also used in making liquid soap.

Propagation of Common Milkweed:

Seed - best sown in a greenhouse as soon as it is ripe in the autumn or in late winter. We have also had good results from sowing the seed in the greenhouse in early spring, though stored seed might need 2 - 3 weeks cold stratification. Germination usually takes place in 1 - 3 months at 18C. As soon as the seedlings are large enough to handle, prick them out into individual pots and grow them on in the greenhouse for their first winter. Plant out when they are in active growth in late spring or early summer and give them some protection from slugs until they are growing away strongly. Division in spring. With great care since the plant resents root disturbance. Pot the divisions up and place them in a lightly shaded position in the greenhouse until they are growing away strongly, then plant them out in the summer, giving them some protection from slugs until they are established. Basal cuttings in late spring. Use shoots about 10cm long with as much of their white underground stem as possible. Pot them up individually and place them in a lightly shaded position in a greenhouse until they are rooting and growing actively. If the plants grow sufficiently, they can be put into their permanent positions in the summer, otherwise keep them in the greenhouse until the following spring and when they are in active growth plant them out into their permanent positions. Give them some protection from slugs until they are established.

Cultivation of the herb:

Thickets, roadsides, dry fields and waste places.

Known hazards of Asclepias syriaca:

Although no specific reports have been seen for this species, many, if not all, members of this genus contain toxic resinoids, alkaloids and cardiac glycosides. They are usually avoided by grazing animals. The older leaves are poisonous if eaten in large quantities. The plant contains cardioactive compounds and is potentially toxic.

Plant information taken from the Plants For A Future.