Vibrant-orange clusters of blooms dotting Southeastern roadsides beginning in early June and lasting into late summer attract more than just the human eye. Butterflyweed (Asclepias tuberosa), a native host-plant to Monarch, Gray Hairstreak and Queen butterflies, is a fabulous garden addition for both beauty and use.
Considered the most medicinal of the milkweeds, butterflyweed stems also can be used for cord, as with other milkweeds. Cherokee used the cord stems for belts. Butterflyweed, however, is not edible as are other milkweeds.
Butterflyweed’s other common name, pleurisy-root, indicates its medicinal value for the respiratory system. Pleurisy is a painful inflammation of the pleural lining of the lungs. Butterflyweed has long been held in high regard as a traditional lung remedy among Native Americans, and as an official drug among pharmacists and physicians.
One of the best-selling, populist-inspired books in America during the 19th century was the “New Domestic Physician or Home Book of Health” by the Scottish physician Dr. John Gunn.
Gunn says butterflyweed “is a very popular remedy for pleurisy in many places.” Dr. Benjamin Smith Barton, author of “Collections for an Essay towards a Materia Medica of the United States” that also was published in the 19th century, viewed butterflyweed as one of the most important of our indigenous species.
Acting as an expectorant and diaphoretic, butterflyweed induces sweating without being overly heating to the system, as are most sweat-inducing sudorifics. Therapeutically, butterflyweed downwardly disperses inflammatory heat occurring in the lungs, or sometimes in the head.
To me, the blooms symbolically indicate that they disperse upward heat, as the center, upwardly reaching petals range from dark orange to red, and the opened petals pointing downward are lighter orange.
Of the Native American tribes that utilized butterflyweed, the Omaha tribe placed the prized plant, used for wounds and lung problems, in a sacred, ceremonial context. Within the Omaha tribe, a selected member of the Shell society was the sole keeper of the remedy. After four days of ceremonial digging, preparation and consecration of butterflyweed, the authorized keeper would distribute bundles of the herb to other members of the society, according to the early 20th century pharmacognosist H.W. Youngken, of the Massachusetts College of Pharmacy.
The medicinal root, which resembles a small sweet potato, is dug when the plant goes dormant. Old-timey herbalist Tommie Bass suggests slicing large roots to dry and store. For a tea infusion for the lungs, steep or simmer a handful of dried roots in water, and take a tablespoon as often as needed.
For wounds, powder the root, and apply to the sore topically. Some Native American tribes would blow the powdered root onto the wound, which was thought to activate the medicine.
Butterflyweed’s flowers contain cardiac glycosides, the constituent found in foxglove (Digitalis purpurea) that for centuries was used to treat congestive heart failure.
Monarch butterflies ingest this toxic compound, which does not harm them, but serves as protection against various bird predators. Birds poisoned by monarchs with high cardiac glycosides vomit for up to half an hour. Some birds will sample the tip of a Monarch wing for the distinctive taste of the cardiac glycosides before preying on the butterflies. Studies have found female butterflies have a higher content of the glycosides than males.
Current research on butterflyweed offers exciting prospects in sustainability. In May, the “Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry” published a study utilizing the seeds of butterflyweed as a renewable source for industrial lubricants, an alternative to nonrenewable petroleum-based sources.
This article was originally published in Athens Banner-Herald on Sunday, June 12th, 2011.