Common names (selected) English: broadleaf milkweed, butterfly flower, common milkweed, cotton weed, milkweed, silkweed, silky swallowwort, Virginia silk, wild cotton; French: asclepiade, asclepiade de Syrie, cotonnier, petit-cochon; German: Gehoernte Seidenpflanze; Spanish: asclepiad, vencetosigo comun
Description: Herbaceous perennial
Native regions and distribution: Native to northeastern, north central and southeastern U.S. and southern Canada but deforestation has expanded its range so it is now found throughout the U.S., Canada, and in parts of Europe where it is considered invasive. It is also found in Japan.
Urban habitat: Grows best in open sun and can thrive in disturbed habitats with high pH levels in soil. Commonly found in un-mowed meadows, sandy roadsides, vacant lots, waste dumps and along railroad tracks.
Ecological function: Disturbance-adapted colonizer. Food and habitat for wildlife including as the main host plant for larvae of the Monarch butterfly.
History / human uses: The follicles of A. syriaca were gathered during World War II for their fluffy seeds, to use as a substitute for the fiber obtained from the seedpods of the Kapok tree, for use in emergency flotation devices. Unsuccessful attempts have been made to industrialize the production of rubber and fiber from the plant. A. syriaca was a staple for numerous Native American tribes who chewed the dried latex and used the inner bark fiber to create textiles and rope. An infusion of the pounded roots was used by the women of some native North American Indian tribes to promote temporary sterility. The Cherokee and many other tribes used the roots to treat a variety of ailments, including asthma, dropsy, heart problems, kidney ailments, stomach aches, rheumatism, respiratory, sterility, warts, venereal diseases and to instigate lactation after childbirth. The leaves and/or the latex are used in folk remedies for treating cancer and tumors and the milky latex from the stems and leaves is used in the treatment of warts. The Chippewa and Dakota consumed the plant as a vegetable and the Menominee used its outer bark for making cords. A. syriaca has a long history as use in human food and is edible when cooked, although raw, its leaves and seedpods are toxic to sheep and other large mammals. The unopened cooked flower buds are used like broccoli and are said to taste like peas. When boiled, the flower clusters make a brown sugary syrup. The latex in the stems can be made into a chewing gum.