When Milkweed Kills

When you think of milkweed, you probably think of the life it supports. The monarch butterfly, for one. As the sole food source for its leaf-eating larvae, monarchs would be a thing of the past if milkweeds disappeared. Numerous other insects feed on its foliage as well, and there are a plethora of organisms that feed on its nectar, including bees, butterflies, beetles, wasps, and other insects, as well as hummingbirds. And speaking of birds, some birds use the silky hairs attached to the seeds to line their nests, while other birds strip stringy fibers from the stems for nest building. And while it is not a major food source for mammals, deer and other animals have been known to sample it. Indeed, milkweed is a veritable life force.

red milkweed beetle (Tetraopes sp.) feeds on milkweed

But it’s also a poisonous plant. The latex sap of milkweed contains cardiac glycosides, among a variety of other toxic chemicals. The plant produces these chemicals to defend itself from herbivory, and so the insects that feed on it have adapted a variety of strategies to avoid being poisoned. Some bite a hole in a leaf vein and wait for the milky sap to drain before proceeding to eat the leaf. Others are able to consume the toxic foliage without being poisoned by it. Some even store the toxic chemicals in their bodies, making themselves poisonous to other organisms that dare consume them.

Aphids on Mexican whorled milkweed (Asclepias fascicularis). One species commonly found on milkweed is the oleander aphid (Aphis nerii), an introduced species that feeds on milkweeds and other plants in the dogbane family.

While milkweed is generally found to be unpalatable to most livestock, those that venture to eat it risk being poisoned and even killed. A guide to milkweed written by the Xerces Society states, “sheep and goats are the most likely to be poisoned because they are browsers and often prefer to feed on weeds over other forages.” Weeds of the West calls Utah milkweed (Asclepias labriformis) “the most poisonous of all western milkweeds,” claiming that “as little as one ounce of green leaf material … can kill an adult sheep.” It also lists swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) as “suspected of causing livestock deaths.” To make matters worse, dead and dried milkweed plants retain their toxicity, which is a problem when they end up in animal feed.

Despite their toxicity, humans have been consuming milkweed for centuries. Young shoots and leaves can be eaten after boiling them several times, refreshing the water each time, and a medicinal tea can be made from the roots. While fatal poisonings of humans haven’t been reported, Nancy Turner and Patrick von Aderkas warn in their book The North American Guide to Common Poisonous Plants and Mushrooms that “uncooked shoots and the mature plants should never be consumed”

But milkweed’s toxic sap is not its only method for killing.

In fact, it may not even be its most deadly. And this is where things get interesting. Last month I arrived at work one morning to find a portion of a dried-up milkweed inflorescence on my desk that had been left there by a friend and co-worker. Stuck to the inflorescence were three, dead, dried-up honey bees, their legs trapped in the slotted hoods of the flowers. Apparently this is a common occurrence; one that is mentioned in nearly every resource about milkweeds that I have read now, and yet I had never heard of it nor seen it until this gift was left for me. I then went out to a patch of milkweed to see this for myself. Sure enough, I found a few dead bees trapped in the flowers of showy milkweed.

dead honey bee stuck in the flowers of showy milkweed (Asclepias speciosa)

Milkweed flowers do not always give up their pollen sacs easily. The slits where the pollinia are found can, on occasion, trap the legs of visiting insects. John Eastman describes this in The Book of Field and Roadside, “insects sometimes become permanently wedged as the fissures trap their feet or the pollinia entangle them, and they die hanging from the flowers.” While milkweed species are native to North America, honey bees are not; they have not evolved alongside the flowers of milkweed, yet they are drawn in, like so many other insects, to the nutritious and abundant nectar.

Native or not, honey bees are not the only insects getting trapped in the flowers. Eastman reports seeing various species of butterflies ensnared as well, and a paper by S.W. Frost lists cluster flies, soldier beetles, and a couple species of moths as unsuspecting victims of these unruly flowers. Frost goes on to observe that, “in spite of the hazards,” bees, wasps, and various other insects “visited the flowers of milkweeds freely.”

In a paper published in 1887, Charles Robertson describes the insect visitors of several different milkweed species. He found an occassional dead insect on the flowers of swamp milkweed, adding that “this occurs only when all or most of the feet are entangled simultaneously, so as to render the insect absolutely helpless.” Observing common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca), Robertson finds that “even when small and short-legged insects succeed in extracting pollinia and inserting them into the stigmatic chambers, they have great difficulty in breaking the retinacula, and often lose their lives in consequence.”

Honey bees were easily the most common victims observed in Robertson’s study, leading him to quip, “it seems that the flowers are better adapted to kill [honey bees] than to produce fruit through their aid.” And a honey bee’s trouble doesn’t always end when she escapes the grasp of the flowers. Pollinia and its connecting tissues can get so tangled around her legs and other body parts that she can no longer forage, subjecting herself to starvation and predation.

To add insult to injury, dead and dying insects stuck to flowers result in another interesting phenomenon. Robertson writes, “many fall prey to predacious insects. I have seen them while still alive, attacked by ants, spiders and [predatory stink bugs].” Eastman adds daddy longlegs to the list of “scavengers” or “cleanup specialists” that come to feed on “flower trapped insects.” As it turns out, visiting the flowers of milkweed can be a dangerous, even deadly, game.

See Also: Idaho’s Native Milkweeds


Tiny Plants: Duckweeds

Obviously, a series about tiny plants must begin with duckweeds – a group of aquatic plants that holds records in a number of categories including smallest flowering plants, smallest vascular plants, and smallest fruits. They are so small, in fact, that they don’t even have true stems or leaves, but rather are composed of undifferentiated vegetative tissue known as a thallus. Some species have one or a few tiny rootlets; others form no roots at all. However, what they lack in their hyper-diminutive size, they make up for in their ability to form massive colonies, creating dense mats that can take up serious square footage in a pond or lake. Depending on the species present, a single square yard of a duckweed colony can contain hundreds of thousands of individual plants.

Five genera make up the duckweed subfamily (Lemnoideae): Spirodela, Lemna, Landoltia, Wolffia, and Wolffiella. This group used to be considered the family Lemnaceae, but has since been placed in Araceae – the arum family. While they are considered flowering plants, not all species of duckweeds produce flowers, and those that do, do so only rarely. They mainly reproduce asexually through a process called budding, in which growth occurs at the base of the thallus (or frond) and eventually splits off from the parent plant. This process happens fairly quickly, which is why duckweeds are able to create substantial colonies.


Duckweed mats form atop the still waters of lakes and ponds, but can also form in very slow moving rivers and streams. Their presence is an indicator of high levels of minerals and nutrients, which is why they are commonly seen in agricultural and industrial wastewater ponds. Nutrients are absorbed through the underside of the thallus, so the rootlets of duckweeds likely function more for stabilization than for nutrient uptake. As duckweed mats expand and grow dense, they shade the environments below them. John Eastman writes about this phenomenon in The Book of Swamp and Bog: “Thick blankets of duckweed can shade pond bottoms, preventing adequate photosynthesis and making life difficult or impossible for submersed plants and animals…however, this is often a problem of only intermittent duration.” One potential benefit of such dense mats is that they can kill off mosquito larvae. Eastman points out that for this to be the case, the duckweed may need to be accompanied by other surface dwelling plants in order to create dense enough shade.

duckweed 1

Duckweeds overwinter by forming turions, small buds that act as storage organs. Eastman explains the process:

These tiny, kidney-shaped buds detach and immediately sink to the bottom, where they remain all winter. In the spring, each turion expels a gas bubble, which causes it to rise to the surface, where it rapidly develops into a new duckweed thallus. Turion formation requires a combination of bright sunlight and high water temperature.

Duckweeds colonize new areas either by moving downstream (if they have that option) or by finding themselves attached to the fur, feathers, or feet of animals that unwittingly transport them. The common name, duckweed, is likely derived from the fact that it is a major source of food for waterfowl. It is high in protein and rich in nutrients, especially when you factor in all the tiny critters growing on and among it. Muskrats and beavers occasionally eat duckweeds as well. Despite losses from herbivory by these creatures, being made mobile by their moving bodies is a major boon.

A collection of various duckweed species - photo credit: wikimedia commons

A collection of various duckweed species – photo credit: wikimedia commons

Duckweeds are also consumed by various species of fish, which is why they are commonly used as a food source in aquaculture. Frogs and other amphibians as well as various aquatic insects and microinvertebrates also consume duckweeds. The diversity of small animals and protists that use duckweeds and the environments they help create is incredible. Eastman writes:

Duckweed mats host a large variety of small fauna that feed, lay eggs, or shelter amid the plants. Many of them secure themselves to the thallus rootlets or undersides, where they snare and capture passing food organisms or particles. Protozoans, rotifers, insect larvae, and crustaceans are often abundant.

Humans have also been known to eat duckweeds. Duckweed farming is not a simple procedure, but a highly nutritious food source is the result when it can be done. A simpler alternative is to use the harvest as animal feed. Duckweeds are also used in bioremediation and are being considered as a source of biofuel.

Depending on the species, an individual duckweed can vary in width from 10 millimeters to less than 1 millimeter. They truly are tiny wonders of the plant world, and it is worth getting down to their level for a closer look (hand lens recommended).

Additional Resources

Ethnobotany: Cattails

“If you ever eat cattails, be sure to cook them well, otherwise the fibers are tough and they take more chewing to get the starchy food from them than they are worth. However, they taste like potatoes after you have been eating them for a couple weeks, and to my way of thinking are extremely good.”  – Sam Gribley in My Side of the Mountain by Jean Craighead George


Illustration by Franz Anthony (www.franzanth.com)

Ask anyone to list plants commonly found in American wetlands, and you can guarantee that cattails will make the list nearly every time. Cattails are widespread throughout the Northern Hemisphere. They are so successful, that it is hard to picture a wetland without them. In her book, Braiding Sweetgrass, Robin Wall Kimmerer discusses this well known association:

Cattails grow in nearly all types of wetlands, wherever there is adequate sun, plentiful nutrients, and soggy ground. Midway between land and water, freshwater marshes are among the most highly productive ecosystems on earth, rivaling the tropical rainforest. People valued the supermarket of the swamp for the cattails, but also as a rich source of fish and game. Fish spawn in the shallows; frogs and salamanders abound. Waterfowl nest here in the safety of the dense sward, and migratory birds seek out cattail marshes for sanctuary on their journeys.

The two most abundant species of cattails in North America are Typha latifolia (common cattail) and Typha angustifolia (narrow leaf cattail). T. angustifolia may have been introduced from Europe. The two species also hybridize to form Typha x glauca. There are about 30 species in the genus Typha, and they share the family Typhaceae with just one other genus. The common names for cattail are nearly as abundant as the plant itself: candlewick, water sausage, corn dog plant, cossack asparagus, reedmace, nailrod, cumbungi, etc., etc.

Cattails have long, upright, blade-like leaves. As they approach the base of the plant, the leaves wrap around each other to form a tight bundle with no apparent stem. As Kimmerer puts it, this arrangement enables the plants to “withstand wind and wave action” because “the collective is strong.” Flowers appear on a tall stalk that reaches up towards the tops of the leaves. The inflorescence is composed of hundreds of separate male and female flowers. Male flowers are produced at the top of the stalk and female flowers are found directly below them. In the spring, the male flowers dump pollen down onto the female flowers, and wind carries excess pollen to nearby plants, producing what looks like yellow smoke.

After pollination, the male flowers fade away, leaving the female flowers to mature into a seed head. Just like the flowers, the seeds are small and held tightly together, maintaining the familiar sausage shape. Each seed has a tuft of “hair” attached to it to aid in wind dispersal. In The Book of Swamp and Bog, John Eastman writes about the abundant seeds (“an estimated average of 220,000 seeds per spike”) of cattail: “A quick experiment, one that Thoreau delighted to perform, demonstrates how tightly the dry seeds are packed in the spike – pull out a small tuft and watch it immediately expand to fill your hand with a downy mass.”

cattails bunch

cattail fluff

Because cattails spread so readily via rhizomes, prolific airborne seeds mostly serve to colonize new sites, away from the thick mass of already established cattails. The ability to dominate vast expanses of shoreline gives cattails an invasive quality that often results in attempts at removal. Various human activities may be aiding their success. Regardless, they provide food and habitat to numerous species of insects, spiders, birds, and mammals. A cattail marsh may not be diverse plant-wise, but it is teeming with all sorts of other life.

Ethnobotanically speaking, it is hard to find many other species that have as many human uses as cattails. For starters, nearly every part of the plant is edible at some point during the year. The rhizomes can be consumed year-round but are best from fall to early spring. They can be roasted, boiled, grated, ground, or dried and milled into flour. Starch collected from pounding and boiling the rhizomes can be used as a thickener. In the spring, young shoots emerging from the rhizomes and the tender core of the leaf bundles can be eaten raw or cooked and taste similar to cucumber. Young flower stalks can be boiled and eaten like corn on the cob and taste similar to artichoke. Pollen, which is high in protein, can be mixed with flour and used to make pancakes and baked goods, among other things. The seeds can be ground into flour or pressed to produce cooking oil.

Cattail leaves can be used to make cords, mats, baskets, thatch, and many other things. Kimmerer writes about the excellent wigwam walls and sleeping mats that weaved cattail leaves make:

The cattails have made a suburb material for shelter in leaves that are long, water-repellent, and packed with closed-cell foam for insulation. … In dry weather, the leaves shrink apart from one another and let the breeze waft between them for ventilation. When the rains come, they swell and close the gap, making the [wall] waterproof. Cattails also make fine sleeping mats. The wax keeps away moisture from the ground and the aerenchyma provide cushioning and insulation.

The fluffy seeds make great tinder for starting fires, as well as excellent insulation and pillow and mattress stuffing. The dry flower stalks can be dipped in fat, lit on fire, and used as a torch. Native Americans used crushed rhizomes as a poultice to treat burns, cuts, sores, etc. A clear gel is found between the tightly bound leaves of cattail. Kimmerer writes, “The cattails make the gel as a defense against microbes and to keep the leaf bases moist when water levels drop.” The gel can be used like aloe vera gel to soothe sunburned skin.

Eastman rattles off a number of commercial uses for cattail: “Flour and cornstarch from rhizomes, ethyl alcohol from the fermented flour, burlap and caulking from rhizome fibers, adhesive from the stems, insulation from the downy spikes, oil from the seeds, rayon from cattail pulp, …” To conclude his section on cattails he writes, “With cattails present, one need not starve, freeze, remain untreated for injury, or want for playthings.”

Additional Resources:

Ethnobotany: White Man’s Foot, part two

Earlier this year, as part of the ethnobotany series, I wrote about plantains (Plantago spp.), of which at least one species is commonly referred to as white man’s foot (or some version of that). Since writing that post, I happened upon a couple of other sources that had interesting and informative things to say about plantains. Rather than go back and update the original post, I decided to make a part two. Hopefully, you find this as interesting as I do. If nothing else, the sources themselves are worth checking out for the additional, fascinating information they contain about all sorts of plants.

plantago_boise capitol building

From The Book of Field and Roadside by John Eastman

Concerning their cosmopolitan nature: “Although both plantains [P. major and P. lanceolata] are Eurasian natives, they have long been thoroughly naturalized global residents; the designation ‘alien’ applies to them in the same sense that all white and black Americans are alien residents.”

In which I learned a new term: “Both species are anthropophilic (associate with humans); they frequent roadsides, parking areas, driveways, and vacant lots, occurring almost everywhere in disturbed ground. Where one species grows, the other can often be found nearby.”

Medicinal and culinary uses according to Eastman: “Plantains have versatile curative as well as culinary properties; nobody need go hungry or untreated for sores where plantains grow. These plants contain an abundance of beta carotene, calcium, potassium, and ascorbic acid. Cure-all claims for common plantain’s beneficial medical uses include a leaf tea for coughs, diarrhea, dysentery, lung and stomach disorders, and the root tea as a mouthwash for toothache. … Their most frequent and demonstrably effective use as a modern herb remedy, however, is as a leaf poultice for insect bites and stings plus other skin irritations. The leaf’s antimicrobial properties reduce inflammation, and its astringent chemistry relieves itching, swelling, and soreness.”

Even the seeds are “therapeutic”: “The gelatinous mucilage surrounding seeds can be readily separated, has been used as a substitute for linseed oil. Its widest usage is in laxative products for providing bulk and soluble fiber called psyllium, mainly derived from the plantain species P. ovata and leafy-stemmed plantain (P. psyllium), both Mediterranean natives.”

Plantain’s “cure-all reputation continues” today: Claims range from a homeopathic cancer remedy to a stop-smoking aid, “supposedly causing tobacco aversion.”

Claims of the healing properties of plantains abound in literature: “John the Baptist, in the lore of the saints, used it as a healing herb; Anglo Saxon gardeners called it the ‘mother of herbs.’ Plantain is ‘in the command of Venus and cures the head by antipathy to Mars,’ according to 17th century English herbalist-astrologist Nicholas Culpeper. Plantains also bear frequent mention in the works of Chaucer and Shakespeare.”

The worst thing plantains have to offer according to Eastman: “the airborne pollen they shed in large amounts, contributing to many hay fever allergies.”

Illustration by Amelia Hansen from The Book of Field and Roadside by John Eastman

Illustration by Amelia Hansen from The Book of Field and Roadside by John Eastman

From Weeds: In Defense of Nature’s Most Unloved Plants by Richard Mabey

Mabey’s too-good-to-paraphrase overview of plantain: “Plantain, ‘the mother or worts,’ is present in almost all the early prescriptions of magical herbs, back as far as the earliest Celtic fire ceremonies. It isn’t clear why such a drab plant – a plain rosette of grey-green leaves topped by a flower spike like a rat’s-tail – should have had pre-eminent status. But its weediness, in the sense of its willingness to tolerate human company, may have had a lot to do with it. The Anglo-Saxon names ‘Waybroad’ or ‘Waybread’ simply mean ‘a broad-leaved herb which grows by the wayside.’ This is plantain’s defining habit and habitat. It thrives on roadways, field-paths, church steps. In the most literal sense it dogs human footsteps. Its tough, elastic leaves, growing flush with the ground, are resilient to treading. You can walk on them, scuff them, even drive over them, and they go on living. They seem to actively prosper from stamping, as more delicate plants around them are crushed. The principles of sympathetic magic, therefore, indicated that plantain would be effective for crushing and tearing injuries. (And so it is, to a certain extent. The leaves contain a high proportion of tannins, which help to close wounds and halt bleeding.)”

On the inclusion of plantains in Midsummer’s Eve rituals: “On Midsummer’s Eve, great bonfires were lit in the countryside, and bundles of wild herbs thrown on them. Most of the plants were agricultural weeds, including St. John’s-wort, corn marigold, corn poppy, mayweed, mugwort, ragwort, plantain, and vervain.”

More about Midsummer’s Eve and the “future-foretelling powers” of this “divination herb, stretching sight into the future”: “On Midsummer’s Eve in Berwickshire, the flowering stems were employed by young women in a charm which would predict whether they would fall in love. It was a delicate, almost erotic process in which the sexual organs of the plantain were used as symbolic indicators. Two of the ‘rat’s-tail’ flowering spikes were picked, and any visible purple anthers removed. The two spikes were wrapped in a dock leaf and placed under a stone. If, by the next day, more anthers had risen erect from the flowering spikes, loves was imminent.”

"Greater - or 'ratstail' - plantain had by this time been nicknamed 'Englishman's foot' by the Native Americans, who had witnessed its prodigious advance in the white man's wake." - Richard Mabey, Weeds: In Defense of Nature's Most Unwanted Plants

“Greater – or ‘ratstail’ – plantain had by this time been nicknamed ‘Englishman’s foot’ by the Native Americans, who had witnessed its prodigious advance in the white man’s wake.” – Richard Mabey, Weeds: In Defense of Nature’s Most Unwanted Plants

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