It’s hard for me to describe what this plant means to me, so I’ll just start with the facts.
Milkweed is in the Apocyanaceae family (subfamily Asclepiadoideae), along with Inmortal, Butterfly Weed, and Balloon Plant.
Asclepias speciosa have their flowers in umbels. They have milky juice and pods containing silky, tufted seeds. Umbels occur at the top of the stem and have around ten elaborately constructed flowers each. The flowers are over 1” wide and have a corolla (which flexes backward after blooming) made up of 5 rose-purple petals, and a star-shaped corona of pinkish-cream, needlelike, pouch-shaped hoods. A horn extends from each of these hoods directly to the ovary. These flower parts are so arranged to make it impossible for an insect to get away without pollen. Stems stand erect. Leaves are fuzzy, blue-green in color, oval- shaped, and 3-8” long. The root is a taproot, which can be tinctured (5-30 drops up to 3x daily), or decocted (4 oz. 4x daily at 1 Tbsp./ pint). In Medicinal Plants of the Mountain West, Michael Moore lists several therapeutic uses:
“Stimulates both urine and perspiration, softens bronchial mucus, dilates bronchi, and encourages expectoration. For a diuretic, Milkweed acts to increase the volume and solids of the urine and will aid in chronic kidney weakness typified by a slight, nonspecific ache in the middle back, most noticeable in the morning or after drinking alcohol […] Excess can cause nausea because the same physiological mechanism that causes expectoration will also cause nausea and vomiting. Other Milkweeds with broad leaves can be used similarly, particularly Pleurisy Root.”
He also recommends a scant teaspoon of Milkweed in a decoction with a tablespoon marshmallow root, wherein both herbs are boiled for an hour and the resulting liquid is drunk over several hours. He touts it as more effective for gallbladder attacks than anything besides Wild Yam.
Although most members of the genus Asclepias are tropical, there are approximately 110 species in North America. Most species (not Asclepias speciosa, however) are toxic to vertebrate herbivores if ingested, due to cardenolide alkaloids contained in the leaves and stems. Monarch butterflies cannot survive without milkweed. They are both a host plant and a food source for Monarch caterpillars. These caterpillars only eat specific plants, all of which are from the genus Asclepias – the Milkweed family. When monarch larvae ingest milkweed, they also ingest the plant’s toxins, called cardiac glycosides. These compounds are ultimately transferred to their wings and exoskeletons, making the larvae and adults toxic to many potential predators.
This particular species of milkweed is native to western North America, and to my delight, it’s easy to spot on medians and roadsides, even in the city. May through August is when it generally flowers, blooms are at their peak in early July.
I started noticing Milkweed (although I did not know it by name) on July 13th, 2013, driving back from wildcrafting trip in Crested Butte. I kept trying to point it out to Marian, who was in the car with me, but she always looked up just a little too late and missed it. I saw this plant all summer, virtually everywhere I drove. It seemed to crowd into every median, and stick out plainly from most roadsides. I wondered for two months how I possibly could have failed to notice this plant in the past.
On the night of September 13th, 2013, I saw it in a dream. The dream was a single image: I was in the parking lot of Red Rocks, which was full of cars. Nobody at all was around, but this plant was growing inside of every car, seemingly from the seats and floors, straight to the roof of each vehicle – as though they were flower beds. The next day, on my way home from work, I went to find some. I found out what the plant was, using a Colorado wildflower identification app that I had on my phone. Flowers were separated by color. I chose pink, and there was my flower – the first result: Asclepias speciosa, or Showy Milkweed. At this point in the year, the plant was no longer flowering, but I had become familiar with the shape of the plant itself from seeing it throughout the summer.
I drove around // and drove around // and drove around.
I was trying to find some that wasn’t too close to the road. Finally, I saw some in a field, ironically very close to where I had started. I had been walking paths in this park mere weeks before, and had come across a horseshoe. I kept it for luck, and placed it on my altar.
This day, I pulled off Wadsworth and parked. I walked a straight path to where it was growing. As I came nearer, I realized that a large ditch and barbed wire blocked my way. I had not seen them from the street. I stood there, at the path’s end, for a moment, trying to think of where I might find more. There was a path directly perpendicular to the one I had followed, with a tunnel leading under South Wadsworth Boulevard off to my left.
Suddenly, I heard a long, low whistle, and the sound of hooves. Fast hooves. A horse carrying a cowboy came flying out of the tunnel, and they passed about two feet in front of me. The cowboy was tan, with a very large brown mustache, a brown leather cowboy hat and boots, and a rusty orange tee shirt with jeans. The horse was brown with a black mane and tail, the latter of which was braided. There was white paint splashed on the side of the animal’s neck and body, as if by accident. They were gone in a flash.
I looked in the direction from which they came and decided to follow the tunnel under the road. I came out on the other side, and walked around for a bit. After a few minutes, I came across a patch of brush where some white paint appeared to have spilled. Directly behind it grew several stands of Milkweed. I spent several minutes discerning which wanted to come with me. The stalk that came was small, really just a stem with leaves.
I started back to the bridge, and as I drew nearer, I could hear someone whistling – this time a tune – and once again, the sound of hooves. The cowboy was dancing his horse under the bridge. We approached one another, and I watched them the whole time – but he neither made eye contact nor spoke, only whistled. The instant we came level with one another, he switched to the long, monotone whistle, and they shot off.
When I got back to my car, I wasn’t sure whether or not it had really happened, because it seemed so strange.
As I drove toward home, I turned to take a different route than usual. Not far down the road, I noticed several stands of Milkweed. These had fleshy, green horns growing at the tops, which made me curious.
I pulled my car over quickly, and walked directly to a plant. I grasped low on the stalk, and the plant came willingly. As I looked at it, I heard singing, and once again, the sound of hooves. The song was in a language I did not know, and as I looked up, I was passed by two Native American men in white tee shirts, jeans, and cowboy boots, each on horseback. I followed behind them for several yards on the way back to my vehicle. I sat in the car for several minutes and watched them ride away.
I went home, and placed both stalks in a tall vase on my altar. I stared at them for a long time.
The genus name Asclepias is for Askelpios, the god of medicine and reputed ancestor of the Asklepiades, the ancient Greek doctors’ guild. He is usually portrayed with a beard, holding a staff with a snake entwined round it, called the rod of Asklepios. As a boy, he was raised by the centaur Chiron, who instructed him in the art of medicine. Asklepios grew so skilled in the craft that he was able to restore the dead to life. However, because this was a crime against the natural order, Zeus destroyed him with a thunderbolt. After his death, Asklepios was placed amongst the stars as the constellation Ophiochus, “the Serpent Holder.”
Patients wishing to be cured by the god visited his temple site, called an Asklepion. It was believed that Asklepios cured patients by visiting them in their sleep at the Asklepion. Sometimes the patient was cured by Asklepios’s daughters, Panacea and Hygeia, who were often helped by snakes. Alternatively, patients would describe their dreams to a priest of Asklepios, who would interpret the dreams and suggest a treatment.
The next day, when I relayed the story to my teacher, she told me that for years, she had been collecting information and recording strange experiences related to plants in the genus Asclepias. She and her mentor Michael, each had strange experiences associated with Asclepias plants; Shelley with Asclepias tuberosa (Butterfly weed), and Michael with Asclepias asperula (Inmortal). All of these plants – Asclepias speciosa, Asclepias tuberosa, and Asclepias asperula – are hatching sites and food sources for monarch butterfly larvae. Monarch butterflies migrate to Mexico each fall, making them abundant in the region for Día de los Muertos. For this reason, they have been believed to be spirits of ancestors coming to visit, making them potent symbols of spirit and lineage.
Shelley said that Asclepias plants call the spirit of the healer. She said that the plant is an initiation. She told me that these plants also ask the question, “Are you really who you say you are?” Flower Essence Services describes Milkweed as a remedy for “Separation from core Self, inability to cope with core identity.”
// Are you really who you say you are? //
Milkweed’s positive qualities, as outlined by FES include healthy ego strength, independence, and self reliance. “Milkweed nourishes the soul at a very deep level, leading to the ability to rebirth that part of the core self which has regressed. As the soul learns to experience the healthy function of its ego, it grows in strength and independence.”
So many of my personal relationships were radically altered that summer, and thereafter my life and the way I defined myself changed quickly and drastically.
Milkweed has shown up in powerful ways over the last several years, as a message of transition and metamorphosis; of death and rebirth. It’s a powerful teacher and bringer of light, and I am forever grateful for its lessons.