When my husband and I go hiking we always tend to stop and examine interesting plants. Recently I was complaining that I’ve never actually gotten to see one of our native milkweeds even though we do hike at the times they’re blooming. Then on one of our recent hikes, my husband points at a beautiful orange flower in a grassy area, and guess what. It’s a milkweed! I think I may have done a happy dance. Further along the trail, in a different grassy area, we run across a different milkweed species, so the same hike provided me with two distinct species of native milkweeds to get nerdy about. The orange one is a traditional medicine and food of the indigenous people, so I thought I may share a bit of information about it here.
Asclepias tuberosa is a member of the Apocynaceae family. Some of you may be wondering why I’m not listing it as a member of the Asclepiadaceae family. DNA sequencing has affected plant taxonomy quite a bit in recent years. One of the changes is that Asclepiadaceae has been demoted from family to subfamily and has been absorbed by the Apocynaceae family. This means that A. tuberosa is a member of the subfamily Asclepiadaceae in the family Apocynaceae. This plant is also a member of the genus Asclepias which contains about 80 different species. Butterfly weed is a perennial herb native to North America. Its range extends from Southern Ontario and New York to Minnesota, south to Florida and Colorado. It prefers to grow in dry open fields, along roadsides, and grassy places. Butterfly weed root is spindle-shaped, large, branching, white, and fleshy with a knotted crown, it sends up several erect, stout, round, and hairy stems, growing from 1 to 3 feet high. Stems are branched near the top and have corymbs or umbels of many deep yellows to dark orange, or almost red, flowers. The leaves grow closely all the way up the stem and are hairy, unserrated, lance-shaped, alternate, sessile, and dark green on top, lighter green beneath. A. tuberosa flowers bloom from May to September, followed in the fall by seed pods from 4 to 5 inches long, containing the seeds with their long silky hairs or floss. This plant, unlike the other milkweeds, contains no latex so the sap is clear.
Scientific Name- Asclepias tuberosa
Common Names- Pleurisy Root, Butterfly Weed, Butterfly Milkweed, Colic Root, Orange Milkweed, White root, Chigger Flower, Fluxroot, Indian Posy, Wind Root
Family- Apocynaceae (Dogbane family) which has been recently broadened to include the subfamily Asclepiadaceae (Milkweed family) based on DNA sequencing
Summary of Actions- Expectorant, Antispasmodic, Antitussive, Emetic, Mildly Cathartic, Diaphoretic, Carminative, Tonic, Demulcent, Cooling, Vasodilator, Estrogenic
Energetics & Flavors- Bitter, Cool, Dry
Parts Used- Root (generally harvested after the second year of growth during the plant’s dormant season), Sometimes Leaves and the Whole Plant
Active Constituents- Glycosides (including Asclepaidin and Cardioactive glycosides), Alkaloids, Tannic and Gallic acids, Resins, Bitters, Essential oil, Fixed oil resins
Edibility- Young Shoots, Flower Buds, and Stems are all edible.
Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM)- Known as Xiong Moyan Gen in TCM, Butterfly Weed is known to be associated with both the lung and large intestine meridians. It promotes sweating, releases to the exterior, tonifies the lungs, clears heat, and reduces swelling. This makes it a great herb for colds, coughs with no or difficult expectoration, bronchitis, pleurisy, and croup. It also moves Qi, relieving spasms including those in the uterus. Xiong Moyan Gen also restores the liver, promotes urination, benefits the skin, and clears wind heat. Pleurisy root is not native to China, but has in modern times been combined with the popular Chinese herb, skullcap, to help treat pneumonia.
Ayurvedic- The use of this beautiful plant has found it’s way from North America all the way to India and now has a place in modern Ayurvedic medicine. In Ayurveda, it is used much the same way that modern Western herbalism uses it. The root is used for many different pulmonary conditions such as asthma, bronchitis, and pleurisy.
Traditional Native American Uses- Many Native American tribes used this lovely plant for a variety of ailments, though the most common use was for pulmonary complaints, that wasn’t the only use for this amazing herb. The Menominee considered this plant one of their most important medicines. Most indigenous people chewed fresh roots from the plant to help treat bronchitis, pleurisy, and other respiratory illnesses. Others, such as the Omaha and Navajo, preferred to make a tea or tincture and ingest it that way. Butterfly weed helped to ease pain and breathing difficulties caused by these illnesses by loosening mucus, soothing inflammation, and helping with long-term recovery. Some tribes also used butterfly weed to help treat bruises. The roots were pounded or chewed into a mushy texture and used as the main ingredient for bruises, swelling, cuts, and other external injuries. The mixture is applied externally to the area of concern as well as ingested as a tonic.
Lung (Pulmonary) Complaints- A. tuberosa is considered one of the best herbal expectorants available while also being cool and relaxing. A cupful of warm infusion (1 teaspoon of powder in a cup of boiling water) taken every hour will quickly and effectively promote perspiration and release stuck phlegm. It also works to reduce the swelling of mucus membranes such as those that line the lungs, this makes it an excellent herb for asthma and bronchitis.
Acute Fevers- Butterfly weed can be used to help in the case of acute fevers by promoting perspiration. Commonly, it’s combined with angelica (Angelica archangelica) and/or sassafras (Sassafras albidum) in these cases. Acute fevers are also often associated with body aches and pain. The analgesic properties of this herb help to ease those aches and pains as well.
Digestive Complaints- Butterfly weed is carminitave and antispasmodic which makes it an excellent herb to treat many digestive issues. Some of the more common issues this plant is used for include diarrhea, colic, indigestion, and flatulence.
Skin & Wound Care- This plant can be of great benefit to the skin, both in wound care and in general skin care. It is frequently used for skin conditions such as eczema and traditionally used to help speed the healing of wounds. Part of why it works so well for this is its anti-inflammatory property. It also contains pregnane glycosides which have an anti-aging effect on the skin.
Other Uses- Fibers from this plant have been traditionally used to make rope and fabric.
Cautions, Contraindications, and Warnings- May cause nausea and vomiting, excessive consumption may also cause heart issues. It may also interfere with certain medications. Do not use during pregnancy (it can over stimulate the uterus), during lactation or with infants, due to small amounts of cardiac glycosides that can be toxic. Canadian regulations do not allow pleurisy root as an ingredient in oral products
I only included a basic introduction to this beautiful native milkweed. If you have any questions or comments, please leave them below. Follow me on Facebook and Instagram or updates on my adven-tures in Nature. Find me on YouTube and check out my videos! I also have a few things up on Teespring, check it out! Also, if you like what I do and what to see more, Become a Patron!
Apocynaceae: Britannica: https://www.britannica.com/plant/Gentianales/Apocynaceae#ref94851
Asclepias tuberosa: Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center: https://www.wildflower.org/plants/result.php?id_plant=astu
Asclepias tuberosa: The Medicinal Plant Garden of Birmingham-Southern College: https://medicinalgarden.trekbirmingham.com/asclepias-tuberosa/
Asclepias tuberosa: Misouri Botanical Garden: https://www.missouribotanicalgarden.org/PlantFinder/PlantFinderDetails.aspx?kempercode=b490
Asclepias tuberosa: Plants for a Future: https://pfaf.org/user/plant.aspx?LatinName=Asclepias+tuberosa
Asclepias tuberosa (butterfly weed/pleurisy root): Lucy Meriwether Lewis Marks: https://www.monticello.org/sites/library/exhibits/lucymarks/gallery/butterflyweed.html
Butterfly Milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa L.): US Forest Service: https://www.fs.fed.us/wildflowers/plant-of-the-week/asclepias_tuberosa.shtml
Butterfly Weed A Native Prairie Medicine: Indiana Native Plants: https://indiananativeplants.org/images/resources/Gordon%20Mitchell%20Articles/GM_butterfly_weed.pdf
Butterfly Weed Herb: Alternative Nature Online Herbal: https://altnature.com/gallery/butterflyweed.htm
Monograph: asclepias tuberosa.: Journal of the American Herbalists Guild
Native American Medicinal Uses of Butterfly Weed: Ordway Field Station: https://sites.google.com/a/macalester.edu/ordwipedia/traditional-ecological-knowledge-tek-from-ling-225/butterfly-weed
New 8,12;8,20-diepoxy-8,14-secopregnane hexa- and hepta-glycosides from the roots of Asclepias tuberosa.: Journal of Natural Medicines: doi:10.1007/s11418-017-1155-9
Pleurisy: Indian Mirror: https://www.indianmirror.com/ayurveda/pleurisy.html
Pleurisy Root: A Modern Herbal: https://www.botanical.com/botanical/mgmh/p/pleuri52.html
Pleurisy Root: Eclectic School of Herbal Medicine: https://www.eclecticschoolofherbalmedicine.com/pleu/
Pleurisy Root: Natural Medicines Database
Pleurisy Root: RxList: https://www.rxlist.com/pleurisy_root/supplements.htm
Pleurisy Root (Xiong Moyan Gen): White Rabbit Institute of Healing: https://www.whiterabbitinstituteofhealing.com/herbs/pleurisy-root/
What are the uses and benefits of Pleurisy Root (Asclepias tuberosa)?: Planet Ayurveda: https://www.planetayurveda.com/pleurisy-root/