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Beautiful butterflyweed -- a forgotten herbPosted Thursday, May 24, 2012, at 8:50 AM
Photo by Steven Foster For photo prints, go to www.stevenfoster.com/prints.html
Historically, it is considered one of the better herbal remedies for pleurisy, hence the name pleurisy root, and it attracts hordes of butterflies, thus is called butterflyweed. There is another name for the plant that may keep you from brushing up against it this time of year -- chigger flower. It was also commonly known as orange swallow-wort, as the seed pods were likened to the shape of a barn swallow.
Butterflyweed is a perennial growing from two to three feet tall, native to dry, gravelly soils from Maine to Florida, west to Arizona and north to Minnesota. Unlike other milkweeds, it doesn't produce a white milky juice, and its leaves are alternate rather than opposite or whorled.
The one-fourth inch hooded and horned orange flowers are borne on showy, erect umbels appearing in late May, sometimes lasting into September. A five-divided trough in the center of the flowers where anthers are modified into organs called "nectaries" ooze sweet, sugar-laden drops that attract any insect that can get to them.
The Sioux made a crude sugar from the flowers.
Pleurisy root was used more extensively for medicinal purposes than any other milkweed, and was a famous treatment for lung diseases. Plains Indians nibbled the raw root in minute amounts for bronchial and pulmonary afflictions. The root was also chewed and put on wounds, or dried and powdered, then blown into wounds.
In the 1897 issue of the Proceedings of the Eclectic Medical Society of New York, Dr. E. B. Foot wrote, "Probably there is not a physician in the sound of my voice today who has not used in his practice Asclepias tuberosa."
Undoubtedly, today, there is not a medical practitioner in the sound of my voice who has heard of this little-appreciated, poorly-researched, but potentially useful medicinal plant now relegated to the realm of just another pretty flower.
Steven Foster is a world renowned botanical photographer. He has published many books, including 2 for National Geographic
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