Botanical and Common Names
- Family Asclepiadaceae
- Asclepias tuberosa (Pleurisy Root, Butterfly Weed, Butterfly Milkweed, Silkweed, Chiggerflower, Canada/Flux//Wind/White/Tuber/Rubber/Pipple – Root, Orange – Swallow-wort/Milkweed/Root/Apocynum, Swallow Wort/Swallowwort/Swallow-wort, Indian Nosy)
- Asclepias incarnata (Swamp Milkweed/Silkweed, Rose-colored Silkweed)
- Asclepias asperula (Milkweed, Candlelit, Antelope Horns, Pleurisy Root; Spanish: Immortal, Yerba del Indio, Candelilla, Lichens, Yamato, Raiz de Pleurisy; Nahuatl: Tlalacxoyatl, Tlalayotli, Tlatlacoctic)
- Do not use during pregnancy or while breastfeeding.
- Do not exceed prescribed dosage as digitalis-like poisonings are possible.
The Asclepias genus is a group of weeds common throughout much of North America and northern Mexico. Most grow low to the ground with long, oval leaves and small flowers followed by seedpods. A. asperula grows primarily throughout the desert southwest, extending into western Nebraska, Arkansas, and Mexico.
Pleurisy root is the most common of the species used for herbal use, and grows primarily in the eastern part of the US. It is an upright perennial, growing to three feet producing narrow, lance-shaped leaves and spikes of numerous five-petaled orange or yellow flowers. The pencil-thin roots are unearthed in the spring and may continue down for some distance into the soil or simply just peter out. Occasionally the roots form thick clusters of tubers.
The common milkweed grows throughout the west. It is scattered and erratic; but, when found, often grows in large colonies from about eighteen inches to six feet in height, usually with a single stem. The leaves are broad, oval, and longish, growing up to eight or ten inches in length. The veining in the leaves is pronounced. The plant produces pinkish-white flowers in a large globular cluster. The individual flowers are quite delicate and very sweet. After flowering, the plant produces good-sized pods, three to five inches in length, which are filled with downy seeds.
The genus name comes from the name of the Greek god of medicine, Asklepios.
The roots were used as an effective expectorant to treat colds, bronchial conditions, and pleurisy, hence the name. Native Americans considered pleurisy root a cure-all used to treat such diverse conditions as pleurisy, typhoid, pneumonia, congestion, dysentery, colic, eczema, and hysteria.
The Natchez people used a tea from the boiled root to treat pneumonia. Many tribes considered it a good remedy for hot, dry fevers.
The Omaha believed this herb to be so important that only members of the Shell society were allowed to dig and distribute the roots. They ate the raw root for bronchitis and other chest conditions, as did the Ponca tribes.
The Menominee also considered it one of their most important medicines and used the pulverized root on cuts, bruises, and other injuries. It was also chewed and placed on wounds or dried, pulverized, and blown into them, especially old, obstinate sores.
Although the plant does not grow on the Rosebud Sioux Reservation in South Dakota, the Lakotas have ten names for six species of Asclepias.
The Cheyennes made a tea from the plant for snowblindness and other forms of blindness, and applied the liquid to the eyes using clean cloths. They also applied the chewed root to rashes and sores, including diaper rash and baby’s sore gums.
The Mesquakies used the root to expel tapeworms, and some species were used as contraceptives.
In Mexico, the various species of Asclepias are called “inmortal” because the plant grows again from the root with seeming immortality. Its other names refer to its popularity as a remedy for pleurisy and chest congestions.
The Aztec Herbal of 1552 recommended the root as a purgative, laxative, and a remedy for chest congestion. The root is still used today for both purposes.
The root was listed in the US Pharmacopoeia from 1820 to 1905 and in the National Formulary from 1916 to 1936. The common milkweed (A. syriaca) and the swamp milkweed (A. incarnata) were also officially listed in the US Pharmacopoeia from 1820 to 1863 and 1873 to 1882.
The cardiac glycosides in the pleurisy root plants are a useful chemical defence for the Monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus). Their relationship to the Viceroy butterfly (Limenitis archippus) is considered to be a classic example of “Batesian mimicry” and the co-evolution of two butterfly species. Monarch butterflies, in their caterpillar phase, eat milkweeds almost exclusively and are able to store the toxic alkaloids in their cells without apparent harm. After their metamorphosis into butterflies, they become poisonous to birds because of the continued presence of the alkaloids. It was experimentally determined that these cardiac alkaloids made blue jays and other birds vomit. They soon learned not to eat the Monarchs. These glycosides not only give protection to the Monarchs from bird predators, but also indirectly to the Viceroy butterfly as well. The Viceroy mimics the Monarchs in appearance, and the birds leave them alone even though the Viceroys do not eat the milkweed plants and are not poisonous.
- promotes sweating
The Asclepias species consists of three traditionally used in herbal medicine: the common milkweed (A. speciosa), immortal (A. asperula), and pleurisy root (A. tuberosa). While each is specific, they also have certain similarities in their effects on the body.
Its specific use is for relieving the pain and inflammation of pleurisy, but it also is a good remedy for any hot, dry, and tight chest conditions. Pleurisy is an inflammation and painful drying of the sack that contains the lungs. Pleurisy root promotes coughing and the expelling of phlegm, while reducing fevers by stimulating perspiration. It regulates breathing and retards further inflammation of the pleura. The herb contains anodyne substances which will also ease the pain to a certain extent. However, too much can cause nausea and, eventually, vomiting. The narrow-leaved milkweeds possess larger quantities of the constituents that cause nausea and vomiting so should be used more cautiously.
It can also be used to correct dysentary and chronic diarrhea.
Swamp milkweed is used mainly for digestive disorders, but has the same cardiac glycosides as pleurisy root.
The common milkweed is a highly useful plant.
*The shoots may be gathered when four to eight inches in height and prepared like asparagus.
*The thick, white, milky sap is quite bitter and contains a number of cardiac glycosides. The water, in which it is cooked, should be changed two or three times. The sap is water soluble and should be discarded along with the water. When so prepared, the plant tastes much like asparagus and maybe more palatable. The sap is also considered to be a remedy for warts when the milky juice is rubbed daily on the wart.
*The leaves are also edible and prepared much like spinach.
*The flower buds can be boiled as well and tastes like a cross between peas and asparagus. The flowers are quite sweet and, when cooked slowly in water, become a thick syrup suitable for pancakes.
*The pods, before becoming filled with the downy seeds, are very good and tastes a little like okra.