Found two Horsetail Milkweed plants this morning when I went out to work on my pathways. Their flowers are as complex as orchids and beautiful in structure. Each bloom is tiny, but together make a nice display that isn’t as flashy as some of its cousins because of the softer color.
I took this at 4X zoom. The plant is slender with long narrow leaves that whorl around the stem.
The little flowerbuds are sweet with nectar and have been used as a sweetener or snack. I only found two plants so far so I want reproduction over a sip of nectar. This is another tasty floral addition to stirfry or fruit salads. The high amount of nectar is an important source for butterflies, native bees, ants, and wasps, and is accessed through a tight slit to ensure pollination. Honeybees frequently get their legs trapped and die.
Like all Milkweeds, this is a Monarch larvae host plant and an anathema to farmers for its toxicity to cattle. A problem exacerbated by overgrazing.
If you are familiar with Milkweeds, you have seen their big seedpods break open and float the seeds away on gossamer silk. The seed filaments are hollow and coated with wax which gives them good insulation properties and they are being used as a hypoallergenic filling for pillows. Oglalla Down is a Nebraska company making pillows, jackets, comforters, yarn, and other products using silk from Horsetail Milkweed’s cousin. Horsetail Milkweed itself has been spun and woven into garments by First Americans.
I was excited to read about its fiber use because it is longer than many other aerial fibers and this is the first specific reference I have seen to spinning and weaving these types of fibers. From what I am reading, it makes a silky fabric and is also being processed into a feltlike nonwoven material that is incredibly warm even at -22°F and it is 6x more buoyant than cork (used during WWII for life preservers). Warm and silky! Fields of Milkweed processed into fabric and felting might bring back the Monarch population. It is surely better than the down industry wherein geese are plucked live several times, a truly painful thing to contemplate.
I admit to 3 down filled items: a mattress and 2 blankets. All have leaked some of the down. Tests show that combining down with Milkweed silk improves both. I will hang on to my down and see about combining it with Horsetail Milkweed silk. I am more excited by Milkweed fibers than Winterfat because the fibers are longer, and likely easier for spinning by a newby spinner. No need to retch while retting the fibers, and no loss of seed for reproduction. Milkweed bast fibers are said to be superior to flax fibers and it is nice that they are perennial. Of course, bast fibers require retting.
The seeds can be pressed for oil, which is about 25% of the seed. It is semidrying and tested higher than soybean oil for color retention and flexibility in alkyd paint.
Cold pressed Milkweed seed oil is an anti-inflammatory pain reliever topically used in a balm to relieve pain associated with fibromyalgia, back and neck pain, shingles, TMJ, and arthritis. Try it before and after workouts, too.
Horsetail Milkweed and some of its cousins are toxic, and medicinal. Before you consider it as a potential food or medicinal, consider that Milkweeds were used by South Americans and Africans who dipped their arrows in a Milkweed sap concoction to hunt and kill enemies and game. It contains glycosides that inhibit proper K+ and Ca+ concentration gradients causing heart arrhythmia at best and heart failure at worst. Some northern Milkweeds have very little of these toxins and some more southern species have so much they are toxic to Monarchs. I am curious because this has not been cited as a potential threat to Monarch butterfly populations. I have seen these two referred to as co-dependent species; however, although Monarchs are fully dependent on Milkweeds, Milkweeds view Monarch caterpillars as a pest. The balance between prey and predator can be upset when one or the other gets a new or improved weapon. In this case, Milkweed has upped the ante and that may spread through the species. As far as some having substantially less glycoside poison, some newer milkweeds are growing faster, perhaps helping them to stay ahead of caterpillar predation. In that case, energy put into glycosides may fall away as being an ineffective use of resources. Plants are always working on their defenses.
All that said, these are toxic plants and nothing you want the grandkids to chew on unless supervised by a knowledgable herbalist or naturalist who can prepare them for eating. Positive note is that the more toxic an individual Milkweed plant is, the nastier tasting and they are unlikely to invite more than a brief nibble that gets spit out. Not a toxic dose.
In all, Horsetail Milkweed is a pretty plant with many uses for my food forest.