Native throughout the Chesapeake Bay watershed, butterfly milkweed's bright-orange coloring and considerable nectar production attract bees, hummingbirds and other native pollinators. The fine, feathery fibers of the seed, called silk or floss, allow them to be carried on the wind.
As its name implies, butterfly milkweed is perhaps best known for its importance to butterflies. Also called butterfly flower or butterflyweed, the plant—along with other types of milkweed, including common milkweed and swamp milkweed—is the only food source of the monarch butterfly. Milkweed produces toxic chemicals that accumulate in a monarch's body, which makes them poisonous to predators.
Historically, milkweed has played an important role for humans as well. Pillows and mattresses have been stuffed with milkweed silk for centuries. During World War II, the plant gained national fame when war with Japan cut off access to the soft, cottony fibers of the seeds of the kapok tree. The U.S. had been using the fibers from the kapok tree seeds as filling for military life jackets.
Through a national campaign, an estimated 11 million pounds of milkweed were collected. This was acheived primarily through children using pillowcases, and the milkweed was used as a substitute filling.
Although potentially poisonous, the plant has been used for medicinal purposes as well. Many indigenous tribes applied milkweed sap for wart removal and chewed its roots to treat dysentery. It was also used in salves and infusions to treat swelling, rashes, coughs, fevers and asthma.
Milkweed was even added to dishes for flavor, or to thicken soups. To avoid its toxicity, special care was needed in the identification and preparation of the plant.