Backyard Butterfly Weed

By Kaila Blevins

Butterfly weed flowersI, like many other people preparing for the COVID-19 lockdown, frequented my local garden center to purchase vegetable seeds and buy plants for the different backyard projects intended to keep myself occupied as the weather warmed. One of the projects that I tasked myself with involved creating a pollinator garden in a wonky, pain-in-the-butt-to-mow patch of grass in my backyard. While walking through the garden center’s aisles, looking for plants to complement the coneflowers (Echinacea) and bee balm (Monarda) I had already placed in my cart, I came across butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa).

Originally, I was drawn to the numerous orange flowers that would bloom from mid-summer through the fall that would potentially allow me to see a variety of butterflies, moths, and maybe even a hummingbird, when I peer out of the kitchen window while washing dishes. But, once I got home, I researched butterfly weed’s uses outside of being pollinator friendly. I was pleasantly surprised to learn that several Native American tribes in the eastern and southwestern portions of the United States used butterfly weed medicinally.

Butterfly weedBased on the historical texts I read, the seeds and roots of butterfly weed were used in numerous treatments. The seeds harvested from the ripened pods were used to treat diarrhea and dysentery. However, most of the different tribes primarily used the roots, which were applied externally to tighten the skin or smashed to create a paste to treat bruises, cuts, sores, and bites. In addition to topical use, the roots were ingested or steeped to create beverages. Raw roots were consumed to treat pulmonary and respiratory issues; dried roots were administered to treat chest pains as well. Drinks were given to women after childbirth to ease the pain and bring comfort to the new mothers. Lastly, individuals believed that rubbing their legs and running shoes with butterfly weed would enhance their running capabilities.

Butterfly weedSince planting the garden back in May, it has been a delight watching the different insects interact with the butterfly weed, but it was also fun learning how people used it in ways other than just adding pops of orange to their garden. For more information on other native herbs and native herb gardening, check out The Herb Society of America’s Notable NativeTM and GreenBridgesTM web pages.

 

Photo Credits: 1) Butterfly weed flowers; 2) Butterfly weed developing seedpod; 3) Butterfly weed in author’s garden. All photos courtesy of the author.

Sources

Moerman, Daniel E. Native American Medicinal Plants: an Ethnobotanical Dictionary: Timber Press, 2009.

Medicinal Disclaimer: It is the policy of The Herb Society of America, Inc. not to advise or recommend herbs for medicinal or health use. This information is intended for educational purposes only and should not be considered as a recommendation or an endorsement of any particular medical or health treatment. Please consult a health care provider before pursuing any herbal treatments.


57348119_2256114837761256_4232634512942563328_nKaila Blevins is the 2020-2021 National Herb Garden intern. She graduated from the University of Maryland, College Park, with a B.S. in Environmental Science and Technology and a minor in sustainability. This fall, she will pursue a Master’s in Landscape Architecture at Morgan State University while also interning in the National Herb Garden. She hopes to expand her knowledge of plants, and how they benefit human health and life. In her spare time, she likes to read, paint, brew kombucha and experiment with its flavors, as well as spend time with her family and pets. Kaila also likes to stay active in the community through volunteering.

Spicebush to the Rescue

Spicebush to the Rescue

By Kaila Blevins

Author Volunteer TripWhile on a volunteer trip in Orlando, Florida, I was desperate for bug spray. In the middle of December, the mosquitoes nibbled on any exposed skin they could find, leaving me and the rest of the unprepared Maryland native participants with patches of red swollen bumps on our ankles and arms. Our guides, a retired couple who volunteers with the state parks, became our heroes on the second day of the trip. During our lunch break, the husband saunters over to us, carrying a branch from a nearby shrub and states, “This is spicebush. Crush its leaves and rub it onto your arms. Keeps the bugs away and helps the itch.” Immediately, we passed the branch around, ripped the leaves off the branch, crumpled them, and rubbed the lemon-peppery scented oil onto our skin.

A couple years later, I would learn that spicebush (Lindera benzoin) has a multitude of uses. The fragrant multi-stemmed shrub is native to the margins of wetlands and along woodland streams in the Eastern United States. It can grow close to 10 feet tall, and in spicebush flowersApril, yellow flowers begin to appear on the branches. By the end of the summer, the flowers are replaced by cherry red fruits. Spicebush is integral to the native ecosystems, as it serves as the host plant for the spicebush swallowtail butterfly, and birds are known to snack on the seeds. However, Native Americans and early settlers relied on spicebush’s herbal properties.

Native Americans would brew tea with the bark, twigs, leaves, and berries. When ingested, the tea would induce sweating. The increased perspiration would help fight off fevers and ease body aches. In addition, ingestion would assist with removing intestinal parasites. The tea could be applied topically as well. Compresses soaked in spicebush tea would be applied to the skin to ease the pain from arthritis, rashes, bruises, and itching. Once settlers arrived in the new world, they sought help from the Native Americans.

The settlers did not know much about the peculiar plants growing in North America, so Native Americans taught them the herbal benefits of the native plants. Lindera benzoin fruitSettlers used spicebush for similar ailments as well as typhoid fever. They also used the plant in culinary dishes. The dried seeds and bark became milder substitutes for allspice and cinnamon, respectively. Beyond its herbal uses, settlers used the presence of spicebush as an indicator for rich soil that could be converted into agricultural land.

Spicebush’s herbal properties may get overlooked by its ecological importance or showy yellow leaves in fall, but it was a staple for Native Americans, early settlers, and my volunteer trip. For more information on spicebush, check out HSA’s Essential Fact Sheet.

 

Photo Credits (from top): Author on field trip; spicebush flowers (courtesy E. Holden); spicebush fruit (courtesy E. Holden)

References

Keiffer, Betsy. “Lindera Benzoin.” Cultivation Notess, Sept. 1998, riwps.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/12/Lindera_benzoin.pdf.

“Lindera Benzoin.” Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center – The University of Texas at Austin, http://www.wildflower.org/plants/result.php?id_plant=LIBE3.

“Lindera Benzoin.” North Carolina Extension Gardener Plant Toolbox, plants.ces.ncsu.edu/plants/lindera-benzoin/.

Nesom, Guy. “Spicebush.” Plant Guide, USDA NRCS National Plant Data Center & the Biota of North America Program , 2003, plants.usda.gov/plantguide/pdf/pg_libe3.pdf.

Medicinal Disclaimer: It is the policy of The Herb Society of America, Inc. not to advise or recommend herbs for medicinal or health use. This information is intended for educational purposes only and should not be considered as a recommendation or an endorsement of any particular medical or health treatment. Please consult a health care provider before pursuing any herbal treatments.


57348119_2256114837761256_4232634512942563328_n

Kaila Blevins is the 2020-2021 National Herb Garden intern. She graduated from the University of Maryland, College Park, with a B.S. in Environmental Science and Technology and a minor in sustainability. This fall, she will pursue a Master’s in Landscape Architecture at Morgan State University while also interning in the National Herb Garden. She hopes to expand her knowledge of plants, and how they benefit human health and life. In her spare time, she likes to read, paint, brew kombucha and experiment with its flavors, as well as spend time with her family and pets. Kaila also likes to stay active in the community through volunteering.