June 29, 2006


Common Milkweed - Asclepias syriaca
Like many old rural homes, the house here at the Feedlot has a bit of an aroma. Warm, humid weather seems to bring out dank old scents as would have put Proust off writing. Of course, there is the 'boar's nest' smell of a lone old coot living a provincial and more or less rustic lifestyle. Previous occupants, who must have smoked truckloads of cigarettes and cigars in here over the years, added a permanent olfactory undertone. What comes out most on these hot days is the outright stink left behind by thousands of cattle, dozens of dogs and legions of mice.

I need an air freshener but, being as tight as a drum, I don't want to pay for it. This is where the handsome milkweed plant comes in. These noble weeds grow wild here, and blossom at the exact time I have a use for their sweet perfume. Their aroma is cloying to some; it certainly is strong. It reminds me of old fashioned perfume. Luca Turin describes the fragrance of Canoƫ perfume as the "pungent odor of poisonous milkweed".

All I do is bring in one or two of the purple blossom clusters into the house, and the effect is like a pleasant incense, but without the smoke. Certainly better than one of those nasty plug-in devices that cook off chemical fragrance oils. Those fire hazards use costly electricity, make my eyes burn and my clothes stink.

Be sure to shake the bugs off of the blossoms before bringing them in the house.

Milkweed Blossoms (click to ID bug)
The photos above are milkweeds growing at the edge of my grove. I deliberately avoid mowing them off, and even give them some water when they get dry. In return I get air freshener and raw materials for field expedient medicine. In fact there were so many medicinal uses for the various milkweeds that Linnaeus named the genus Asclepias after Asclepius, the Greek god of healing.

The US during WWII tried to make rubber out of the latex or milk that gives the milkweed its name, but the effort wasn't successful. Milkweed was able to help the war effort by supplying a substitute for Japanese controlled sources of tropical kapok, used to stuff life preservers. The floss that wafts milkweed seeds on the breeze could not only be used in place of kapok, but is also a good insulator. The hippies at Mother Earth News even suggest making a field expedient winter coat using milkweed fluff. Somehow, I think a nice furry hide would be better.

Milkweed Seed Pods - Floss
Believe it or not, there is a 'milkweed business' these days. It is small and struggling. Nebraska is trying to promote milkweed agriculture and to develop a market for milkweed products. Just this month, Governor Dave Heineman awarded a $33,400 grant "to educate farmers about uses for the alternative crop syriaca, better known as milkweed. The money will go to some outfit named Syriaca, and matching funds will come from the Nebraska Syriaca Cooperative, along with Natural Fibers Corporation of Ogallala, Southeast Community College and some local weed growers. They use the downy floss to make hypo-allergenic pillow stuffing and such. Growing milkweed to attract butterflies is becoming popular in some circles.

Milkweed farming: the next ostrich ranch.

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