Swamp milkweed, or Asclepias incarnata, is hugely popular with my kids for both its beauty and its playfulness. Gentle pink flowers cluster together like a choir of amazing singers and butterflies flock to drink the sweet nectar hidden inside.
The seed pods however, are the parts that bring the most intense joy to the hearts of children and adults alike.
Opening the pods reveals the soft fluffy hairs that hold the seeds, perfect for throwing or blowing in the wind. One of our favorite fall games involves both milkweed and dandelion fluff. In fact, milkweed was grown in large quantities during WWII to stuff pillows and life preservers. (1) It seems that wherever it grows, its strong, tough stem has been made into fibre.
Named after Asclepias, the Greek god of healing, the root of swamp milkweed has been traditionally used for many ailments. It has been noted as having diuretic, carminative, laxative and emetic properties. A cold infusion was used by the Iroquois to heal infants’ navels after birth. A decoction was used as a diuretic for too much or too little urine, as a wash for stricture, and to increase one’s strength to physically punish a witch. (2) Early colonists used it for asthma, rheumatism, syphillis, worms, and as a heart tonic. (3)
According to King’s Dispensatory, swamp milkweed acts much like foxglove (Digitalis purpurea) but without the gastrointestinal side effects. The Eclectics also noted that it was useful in chronic mucous disease of the stomach and in erysipelatous conditions. (4)
Being more familiar with the medicinal use of Asclepias tuberosa, or butterfly weed, I have yet to explore using swamp milkweed in my clinical practice. For now, I am just appreciating the monarch butterflies it attracts, the beauty of its flowers and seed pods, and the fun we have with its fluff.
(1) Kirk S, Bell S. Plant fact sheet for swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) [Internet]. USDA-Natural
Resources Conservation Service, Norman A. Berg National Plant Materials Center. 2011 Apr [cited 2012 June 23]; Available from: http://plants.usda.gov/factsheet/pdf/fs_asin.pdf
(2) University of Michigan – Dearborn. Native American ethobotany [database on the Internet]. [cited 2012 June 23]; Available from: http://herb.umd.umich.edu/
(3) Maryland Native Plant Society. Swamp milkweed. Marilandica [Internet]. 2010 Fall [cited 2012 June 23]; 1(1):4. Available from: http://www.mdflora.org/Resources/Publications/WildflowerInFocus/pim_swamp_milkweed.pdf
(4) Felter HW, Lloyd JU. King’s American dispensatory. Asclepias incarnata [Internet]. 1898 [cited 2012 June 23]; Available from: http://www.henriettesherbal.com/eclectic/kings/asclepias-inca.html