This spring, I added Butterfly Weed to the garden. Sometimes called Pleurisy Root, it is a native perennial plant in Maryland. It is more commonly seen in ornamental gardens for the appeal of its clustered orange flowers that appear in the late summer. As the name suggests, Butterfly Weed can be very attractive to various species of butterflies, including the Monarch.
The root of Butterfly Weed was used commonly by native peoples as a medicine. It was quickly adopted by white settlers and continued to serve medicinally through the 19th century. During the Civil War, the Confederate States Medical Purveyors listed Butterfly Weed as part of it's official pharmacopeia. The confederate government paid civilians to harvest the roots for use in the Southern army.
Butterfly Weed was most commonly used to treat a variety of respiratory/pulmonary ailments, including consumption (tuberculosis), pneumonia, bronchitis, and pleurisy (a painful inflammation of membranes between the lungs and chest wall). It was thought to relieve pain and inflammation and act as an expectorant. Butterfly Weed was also sometimes prescribed as a treatment for a host of unrelated conditions ranging from colds and fevers to rheumatism and venereal diseases. I have no idea if it actually worked.
The Butterfly Weed that I planted this year did not fare terribly, but it did not flourish either. I believe that this is because of soil conditions. This plant prefers to grow in gravely or sandy soils and that is not what I had given it. Perhaps I will replant it in a more appropriate soil come spring. One of the plants did do well enough, however, to produce healthy-looking seeds, which I have collected. I am going to try planting these in the spring to produce enough Butterfly Weed that I can begin harvesting some of the roots for future educational programming.
While visiting a pasture in southern Pennsylvania recently, I collected seeds from a close relative of Butterfly Weed: Common Milkweed. Both plants are members of the genus Asclepias. The genus is named for the Greek god of healing.
Asclepius, holding his snake-entwined staff
Milkweed is also a native perennial plant that is very attractive to Monarchs and other butterflies, but it's appearance is a bit different and less attractive to flower gardeners. Milkweed also likes to grow in gravely or sandy soil.
It's root was used to treat a variety of complaints. Like Butterfly Weed, it was believed efficacious in treating respiratory conditions like asthma and bronchitis, but also indigestion, diarrhea, kidney problems, menstrual cramping, dropsy (edema: swelling caused fluid retention), and other surprising ailments. Once again, I have no idea if there is any merit to these prescriptions.
Both types of seeds will require cold treatment, or stratification, to allow them to germinate when I plant them in the spring. That's another blog post!
It looks like our museum mascot Lacey was playing with my camera while I wasn't looking!