Sep 302011


Today’s featured plant is New England Aster, Aster novae-angliae or Symphyotrichum novae-angliae.

New England Aster is also known as starwort, blue chamomile, blue daisy, New England aster, fall-rose and frostweed.

Range and Identification of New England Aster Continue reading »

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Sep 172011
evening primrose

Today’s featured plant is Evening Primrose, Oenothera biennis.

Evening Primrose is also known as common evening primrose, hoary evening primrose, common primrose, German rampion, King’s Cure All, Fever Plant, Field Primrose, Night Willow-herb, hog weed, Primrose, Scabish, Scurvish, Sun Drop, and Tree Primrose. Continue reading »

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Sep 072011

milkweed blossom

Today’s featured plant is Common Milkweed, Asclepias syriaca

Common milkweed is also known as Butterfly flower, Silkweed, Silky Swallow-wort, Virginia Silkweed, Milkplant, silk grass, common silkweed, cottonweed, milkweed, wild cotton, Virginia-silk, and algodoncillo.

Range and Identification of Common Milkweed

Common milkweed can be found throughout most of the central to eastern United States and Canada (see USDA map) and is native to North America.  There are over 2,000 milkweed species worldwide (Wildflowers of Wisconsin).  Illinois Wildflowers states:  “Habitats include moist to dry black soil prairies, sand prairies, sand dunes along lake shores, thickets, woodland borders, fields and pastures, abandoned fields, vacant lots, fence rows, and areas along railroads and roadsides. This plant is a colonizer of disturbed areas in both natural and developed habitats.”

Common milkweed plants grow between 2-5′ (60-150cm) in height.  Their leaves are large (4-6″, 10-15 cm) and oval shaped with smooth edges, and are attached in opposing pairs on the stem.  When the stem or leaf are damaged, they ooze white, sticky sap.  Flowers are pastel pink, about 1/2″ (1cm) wide, and are found in clusters up to 2″ (5 cm wide).  Each flower has 5 downward-pointing petals and a 5-part pointed crown (Wildflowers of Wisconsin).  The flowers also smell quite lovely, very sweet but not cloying.

milkweed blossom

The plants spread by seed and by creeping rhizome, so it is quite common to find the milkweed plants in clumps or clusters like this one.

milkweed patch

Seed pods form in fall, and are elongated, green and somewhat spiky.  As they ripen, these pods turn pale brown, split open, and release seeds attached to silky, hair-like fuzz that carries the seeds on the wind.

milkweed seed pods


Common Milkweed as Food and Habitat for Wildlife

Common milkweed provides food for many different types of insects, both through its nectar and its leaves. gives a long list of critters that enjoy the milkweed’s hospitality:

The flowers are very popular with many kinds of insects, especially long-tongued bees, wasps, flies, skippers, and butterflies, which seek nectar. Other insect visitors include short-tongued bees, various Milkweed plant [Seedpods of Common Milkweed] bugs, and moths, including Sphinx moths. Among these, the larger butterflies, predatory wasps, and long-tongued bees are more likely to remove the pollinia from the flowers. Some of the smaller insects can have their legs entrapped by the flowers and die. Common Milkweed doesn’t produce fertile seeds without cross-pollination.


The caterpillars of Danaus plexippes (Monarch Butterfly) feed on the foliage, as well as the caterpillars of a few moths, including Enchaetes egle (Milkweed Tiger Moth), Cycnia inopinatus (Unexpected Cycnia), and Cycnia tenera (Delicate Cycnia). Less common insects feeding on this plant include Neacoryphus bicrucis (Seed Bug sp.) and Gymnetron tetrum (Weevil sp.)…).


Many of these insects are brightly colored – a warning to potential predators of the toxicity that they acquired from feeding on milkweed. Mammalian herbivores don’t eat this plant because of the bitterness of the leaves and their toxic properties.

Fibers from old stems are used by orioles for making nests.

monarch caterpillar on milkweed

Monarch caterpillar on milkweed

Medicinal Uses of Common Milkweed

The Woodrow Wilson Foundation Leadership Program for Teachers highlights cultural uses of milkweed:

Common milkweed has been used traditionally a tea prepared from its root as a diuretic for kidney stones, a laxative, and an expectorant. It has been used to treat asthma and bronchitis and it induces sweating. The sap has been used for chewing gum, which is considered very dangerous because of the presence of cardioactive compounds in the plant. The sap has also been used as a topical remedy for worts, ringworm and moles. Some Native Americans used milkweed as a contraceptive. It was also a folk remedy for cancer. Today, milkweed has limited medicinal use; other milkweed species, such as the swamp milkweed, have more widespread use. Parts of the milkweed plant can be eaten, but the similarity of this plant to toxic look-alikes would serve as a caution against this practice. It is used by some as an emetic, a potion to sooth the nerves, and as a stomach tonic. It is also believed to kill parasitic worms.

Note:  Please exercise caution when using this or any other wild plant internally. The post is for informational purposes only and is not meant to diagnose or treat any illness.

Food Uses of Common Milkweed

The leaves, new shoots, flower buds and firm seed pods of the milkweed are all edible. Gather leaves and shoots in early spring when they first open/appear. Seed pods are gathered in late summer.  In The Forager’s Harvest, Samuel Thayer states that:  “Common milkweed has one of the most mild, neutral and agreeable flavors of any vegetable you’ll ever find, wild or cultivated.”  While I haven’t always agreed with Mr. Thayer’s flavor descriptions, at the very least the plant is certainly generally safe to eat in moderate quantities.  The Forager’s Harvest includes more detailed instructions for the recipes below.

Recommendations include:

Milkweed Shoots -
Milkweed shoots appear asparagus-like, except they have a few pairs of small leaves clasping their sides. The smaller they are, the better they taste – but as long as they bend easily and break off when pinched they are good to eat. Normal size is three to six inches.

Just boil the shoots in salted water until they are tender, which is usually twenty minutes or so. (All milkweed parts are cooked in roughly the same manner.) Despite the rather long cooking time, these shrink far less than most green vegetables. Milkweed shoots are almost universally liked. They are often compared to asparagus, but I think the flavor is highly reminiscent of green beans. As the plants grow taller, you can still eat them, using only the top few inches and removing all but the smallest leaves. At this stage they are never quite as good as the younger shoots.

Milkweed flowers -
In midsummer the unopened flower buds can be gathered. They look like miniature heads of broccoli but are softer. Dice up a small handful of these and toss them into a soup, casserole, pasta dish, stuffing, or stir-fry to excellent effect. To eat larger servings of the flower buds alone, boil them, drain the water, and season. Many people consider this the best part of the milkweed plant. I think they taste almost identical to the shoots and the pods. There is one small warning that must be made with milkweed flower buds: sometimes they are full of tiny monarch caterpillars.

Milkweed pods -
Milkweed pods are excellent in stew, stir-fry, or eaten as a vegetable side dish. They are delicious with cheese and bread crumbs. The pods can also be made into pickles, but they become soft after boiling.
The best time to gather milkweed pods is late summer (from early August to early September around here). The size of the pods varies greatly from one plant to the next. An immature pod on one specimen may be larger than a full-grown pod on another, so determining which pods are immature can be tricky. The pods that are too old tend to be rougher on the outside than the young pods. They also tend to have more pointed, curved tips. These are tendencies, not rules, however. There are a few more reliable ways to determine the age of pods.

There is a line running the length of each pod, along which it will split open to release its seeds when mature. If you pull apart on both sides of this line and it splits open easily, the pod is probably too old to use. For the beginner, it is best to open up several pods and examine the insides to get an idea of which ones are in the proper stage for harvesting. In an immature milkweed pod (one that can be eaten) all of the seeds will be completely white, without even a hint of browning. The silk should be soft and juicy, not fibrous. It should be easy to pinch through the bundle of silk or to pull it in half. Immature pods are also plumper and harder than mature ones. Don’t let this seem more complicated than it really is – with time you will know, at a glance, which pods to collect.

A few times each season I gather a large quantity of milkweed pods. I work my way through my favorite patch and fill a cloth bag, which doesn’t take very long, since milkweed often grows in large, prodigious colonies. I leave the tiny pods for next time, and ignore those that are questionably old. When I get home I sort through the pods, keeping all of those less than about 1.5 inches long to be eaten whole. If I do not use these immediately, I can or freeze them (after parboiling). Milkweed pods, after they are picked, begin to toughen in a few hours, and may become unpalatable in a day or less.


Common Milkweed, Asclepias syriaca - Weekly Weeder #10

Milkweed pods were gathered for life preservers in WWII.

Other Uses of Common Milkweed

Candle wick made of milkweed silk burns cleaner than a wick made of cotton.  During WWII, milkweed pods were gathered for their silk to make filling for life preservers.

W.I. DeWees, an assistant professor of agriculture from Illinois State Normal University, was state superintendent for the floss collection program. With labor – both in the city and countryside – at a premium, schoolchildren were enlisted in the cause. This was a time before the complete mechanization of the farm and school consolidation, so there were many more children and many more schools in the Illinois countryside than today.

Therefore, it was schoolchildren who spent the untold hours walking fencerows, roadsides and railroad right of ways looking for milkweed, which before the war was considered little more than a weed.

Onion sacks were distributed to carry the collected pods, and children received 15 cents per bag, with an additional 5 cents if the pods were dried. Two bags of pods contained floss for one life jacket. The U.S. military called for the collection of 2 million pounds of floss nationally, enough to fill 1.2 million life jackets.

Harvesting the floss was simply a matter of picking the pods before they cracked open and released their seeds. Consequently, the pods doubled as handy storage units before the naturally buoyant fiber could be processed into lifejacket stuffing.

Read the full story at

Thanks for taking the time to visit, and I hope you’ll be back again soon.  As always, if you’ve enjoyed the post, please pass it along.  Let me know if you try out any of the uses, too.

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Aug 312011

Canada Goldenrod, Solidago canadensis - Edible from Flowers to Roots

Today’s featured plant is Canada goldenrod, Solidago canadensis.

Canada goldenrod is also known as common goldenrod, tall goldenrod or Aaron’s rod.

Range and Identification of Canada Goldenrod Continue reading »

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Aug 242011
butter-and-eggs bee

Today’s featured plant is Butter and eggs,  Linaria vulgaris,

Butter and eggs is also know as yellow toadflax, wild snapdragon, flaxweed, bread and butter, false flax, brideweed, bridewort, Jacob’s-ladder, rabbit flower, imprudent lawyer, pennywort and a host of other names.

The flowers look very similar to Dalmatian Toadflax (L. dalmatica) but that species has broad leaves.   Butter and eggs pops in in my garden and near my mailbox, and we have extensive patches of it out in the pasture.  The name “snapdragon” originates from the “popping” or “snapping” sound that is made when you squeeze it, but I’ve never tried squeezing one.  According to Wildflowers of Wisconsin, the other common name, toadflax, is based on how the flower opens wide like a frog or toad’s mouth when squeezed.  (I wonder if the name “imprudent lawyer” is linked to that wide open mouth, too?  I’m thinking “yes”.)

butter-and-eggs field

Range and Identification of Butter and Eggs

Butter and eggs originated in Europe and was brought over as a decorative garden plant.  It escaped, and now ranges all over North America, from Manitoba to Mexico.  (How’s that for adaptability?)  It’s commonly treated as a noxious weed, because it is a perennial and spreads by rhizomes, plus the seeds can stay viable in the soil for eight years.  I let it grow around the edges of the garden, but I avoid letting it go to seed.  (Eight years is longer than I want to be pulling volunteers.)  It is an aggressive grower, and can easily crowd out smaller plants.  It prefers a neutral pH and gravelly and sandy soil, and will happily grow in disturbed soils, along roadsides, in pastures, at the edge of woods and in your garden.

The height of the plant is between 1-2 feet.  Flowers grow in spikes and have five petals.  The orange part is known as a “honey guide”, which guides the insects along the long spur of the flower, insuring pollination (from Wildflowers of Wisconsin).  Leaves are narrow, grasslike and simple (not composite), and are attached in an alternating pattern along the stem. There are some beautiful closeups of the blossoms at all

butter-and-eggs small
butter-and-eggs flowering

Butter and Eggs as Food and Habitat for Wildlife

Around here, the fields are humming with bumblebees working over the flowers of butter and eggs.  Most sites I’ve seen dismiss it as a wildlife plant because it displaces native species, but I know the bees love the blooms,  and it is also a favorite of the hummingbird-like sphinx moth.  Smaller insects are unable to effectively pollinate the flower because they lack the weight to open the bloom.

Medicinal Uses of Butter and Eggs states:

Part Used Medicinally—Cultivation. For medicinal purposes, Toadflax is generally gathered in the wild condition, but it can be cultivated with ease, though it prefers a dry soil. No manure is needed. Seeds may be sown in spring. All the culture needed is to thin out the seedlings and keep them free of weeds. Propagation may also be carried out by division of roots in the autumn.

The whole herb is gathered just when coming into flower and employed either fresh or dried.

When fresh, Toadflax has a peculiar, heavy, disagreeable odour, which is in great measure dissipated by drying. It has a weakly saline, bitter and slightly acrid taste.

Constituents—Toadflax abounds in an acrid oil, reputed to be poisonous, but no harm from it has ever been recorded. Little or nothing is known of its toxic principle, but its use in medicine was well known to the ancients.

Its constituents are stated to be two glucosides, Linarin and Pectolinarian, with linarosin, linaracin, antirrhinic, tannic and citric acids, a yellow colouring matter, mucilage and sugar.

Medicinal Action and Uses—Astringent, hepatic and detergent. It has some powerful qualities as a purgative and diuretic, causing it to be recommended in jaundice, liver, skin diseases and scrofula; an infusion of 1 OZ. to the pint has been found serviceable as an alterative in these cases and in incipient dropsy. The infusion has a bitter and unpleasant taste, occasioned by the presence of the acrid essential oil. It was at one time in great reputation among herb doctors for dropsy. The herb distilled answers the same purpose, as a decoction of both leaves and flowers in removing obstructions of the liver. It is very effectual if a little Peruvian bark or solution of quinine and a little cinnamon be combined with it. Gerard informs us that ‘the decoction openeth the stopping of the liver and spleen, and is singular good against the jaundice which is of long continuance,’ and further states that ‘a decoction of Toadflax taketh away the yellownesse and deformitie of the skinne, being washed and bathed therewith.’

The fresh plant is sometimes applied as a poultice or fomentation to haemorrhoids, and an ointment of the flowers has been employed for the same purpose, and also locally in diseases of the skin. A cooling ointment is made from the fresh plant – the whole herb is chopped and boiled in lard till crisp, then strained. The result is a fine green ointment, a good application for piles, sores, ulcers and skin eruptions.

The juice of the herb, or the distilled water, has been considered a good remedy for inflammation of the eyes, and for cleansing ulcerous sores.

Boiled in milk, the plant is said to yield an excellent fly poison, and it is an old country custom in parts of Sweden to infuse Toadflax flowers in milk, and stand the infusion about where flies are troublesome.

So while these plants have been used medicinally, do exercise caution. also states:  “Bear in mind “A Modern Herbal” was written with the conventional wisdom of the early 1900′s. This should be taken into account as some of the information may now be considered inaccurate, or not in accordance with modern medicine.

Butter and Eggs for Dying Fabric

Plant states:

This whole plant as well as the flowers has been used in traditional fabric dyeing. A range of possible colors can be produced by Linaria vulgaris including yellow-green, yellow and chartreuse. It is traditionally used to dye wool. (The mordants used for fixing the dye include: alum, copper, tin.)

If any of my crafty local friends would like to experiment with this, I’ve got several very large patches filled with flowers right now, and I’ll bet that Deb has some wool she could spare.  :-)

Thanks for visiting, and if you feel inclined to share the post, please do.

This post has been added to Wildcrafting Wednesday for August 24, 2011 at Mind, body and Soul.

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