Asclepias speciosa

Common name: showy milkweed

 Scientific name:  Asclepias speciosa

Plant family:  Asclepiadaceae

Description:  Asclepias speciosa is a perennial forb with hairy stems, growing to about 2-5’ tall. The leaves are velvety, large (up to 6” long), green and opposite. The flowers are spherical clusters of rose-colored, star-shaped fragrant flowers in a fuzzy umbel. The fruits are horn-shaped buds, filled with silky, hairy seeds. The stems contain a sticky sap.[1, 2]

Habitat and Range:  Showy milkweed prefers moist soil but it grows in a wide variety of habitats, in prairies, meadows, along roadsides, streams and ditches and  is drought tolerant. It is widely distributed across the entire western half of the U.S. and Canada.[2]

 

Historical and Contemporary Uses:

The most well known historical use of Asclepias speciosa is as a fiber source. These tall plants yield long fibers used for twining, and they can be woven into coarse fabrics, cords, and ropes for various purposes. The stems are gathered in the fall after they dry, the woody material is removed, and then the fibers are twisted into twine. Sometimes fine fibers from the seed pods were gathered and woven into fabric.[3]
One foot of cordage requires five stalks of milkweed; a Sierra Miwok (California Sierra tribe) skirt or cape required cordage made from about five hundred plant stalks. This Indian tribe would burn the areas where milkweed grows; it stimulates new growth that would be taller and have straighter stems the next year.[3]

Showy milkweed continues to be used as a fiber in contemporary times. The Tewa people in the Rio Grande area use these fibers to make string and rope. The Zuni people use seed fibers to weave into a fabric, especially for use in dancer’s clothing. Modern Euro-Americans have employed the seed fibers to stuff pillows and live vests, particularly during WWII; the fibers are buoyant. The floss has also been used to soak up oil spills at sea.[4]

 

This photo shows the dried buds of the showy milkweed splitting open, to disperse the silky seeds. These fibers were used as well as the long fibers from the stalks. Here is a personal account from Pete Bunting, a forester and member of the sierra Native American Tribal Council, about how he gathers the stems. [2]

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“In the fall when the milkweed has dried I check to see if they will break off at the ground line. The plants are usually a yellow tan to gray depending on how long they have dried. I like the gray for softer string, but the fibers are shorter. The tan stalks have longer fibers but are also stiff and hard to work but very long. I break off as many of the plants as I can gather as they are going to re-sprout in the spring. I try and let them dry some more. Then I process them. I have used plants that have over-wintered under snow and they were fine but had soft, short fiber. After 2 winters they are usually no good but you have another year’s stalks to pick by then.”


[1] Pojar, Jim, Andrew MacKinnon, and Paul B. Alaback. Plants of the Pacific Northwest Coast, Washington, Oregon, British Columbia and Alaska. Lone Pine Pub, 1994.

[2] USDA, Forest Service for Western U.S., from website:http://www.fs.fed.us/database/feis/plants/forb/ascspe/all.html.

[3] USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service database from website:http://plants.usda.gov/java/profile?symbol=RUSP.

[4] Plants for a Future from website: http://www.pfaf.org/user/default.aspx.

7.5 University of Michigan Dearborn Native American Ethnobotany database from website: http://herb.umd.umich.edu/