A Statement of Purpose

Since 2012 I have been responsible for
the garden at the Pry House Field Hospital Museum on Antietam National Battlefield. The Pry House garden began as a 19th century style medicinal and kitchen garden, including medicinal plants, herbs, and vegetables. As close as possible, these plants mirrored those available to the Pry Family in the 1860s, meaning heirloom varieties. Since then, the garden has transformed to focus exclusively on medicinal plants, becoming an exhibit of the flora that was employed by military and civilian caregivers in the Civil War Era.

I am strictly an amateur, with no real experience in growing a garden. The purpose of this blog is to document my experiences as I learn by doing. It is anything but authoritative and I welcome any comments and advice for a greenhorn. Please be kind!

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Milkweed Seeds

I have been doing a bit more seed collecting recently, so I thought I would talk about two plants in the same family that I have collected, one from the garden and one from the wild.

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!


  1. Hiya, is this your one and only site or you also own others?

    1. I am afraid I don't understand what you mean.

  2. Back in World War II, the seed's floss was collected and spun to be weaved on the loom; when cotton was scarced and used for the War effort.

  3. School children collected common milkweed pods during WWII & gave it to the government. The filament around the seeds was used as a substitute for kapok in life jackets. See http://nemasket.blogspot.com/2011/08/milkweed-pods-for-war-1944.html for more info.