Grit Blogs > The Daily Commute

Common Milkweed Oil Shows Promise in Cosmetics

By Hank Will, Editor-in-Chief


Tags: weeds, wildflowers, farms,

Common milkweed in full bloom.

The common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) has a knack for falling into and out of favor, depending on which way the wind blows its tufted seed.  Naturalists and butterfly gardeners sing the milky-sapped weed's praises because it's the food source for the monarch butterfly's larva. During the Second World War, Japan controlled the silk-cotton tree's (Ceiba pentandra) principal growing regions ... the fibers (kapok) obtained from this tree were used to stuff life preservers. Since milkweed also produces a hollow, wax-coated, flexible fiber it was considered to be an excellent substitute for kapok. A pound of milkweed floss could keep 100 pounds of sailor afloat for about 10 hours. So valuable was the milkweed floss that there was a national drive to collect milkweed pods at centralized processing centers ... by some estimates, more than 25 million pounds of pods were collected and processed in 1944 and 1945. Milkweed is still grown and its fiber is used to stuff pillows and for insulation in clothing.

Shortly after the war, the tap-rooted milkweed became the bane of many a farmer's existence. Although the weed doesn't generally appear on any noxious weed lists, it can be problematic with some kinds of row crop cultivation. It seems funny how a native plant species can become a weed ... it all depends on your point of view.

Today, common milkweed is about to be born again. It seems that this hardy plant's seeds are full of unsaturated oils that according to researchers at the ARS National Center for Agricultural Utilization Research can be used as a base material for sunscreen, cosmetics and skin- and hair-care products, including moisturizers and conditioners.  Getting the oils to be effective UV absorbers requires zinc chloride catalysis of the milkweed oil's triglycerides into cinamic acid drivatives.

In tests at the center's New Crops and Processing Technology Research Unit, the cinamic acid derivatives absorbed UV light with skin-damaging wavelengths from 260 to 360 nanometers -- and they worked at concentrations far below those approved for chemical additives and fillers used in today's sun blockers.  

But that's not all. Common milkweed oil might be useful for other industrial applications such as paint and epoxy manufacturing.

I am excited to see common milkweed once again in the limelight as more than a butterfly food and lovely wild flower. I am not excited by the prospect of some large chemical company trying to genetically engineer this well adapted wild plant to produce more oil. However, the entire story begs the question of when a weed is really a weed.

Photo: iStock; Tim Messick


Hank Will raises hair sheep, heritage cattle and many varieties of open-pollinated corn with his wife, Karen, on their rural Osage County, Kansas farm. His home life is a perfect complement to his professional life as editor in chief at GRIT and Capper's Farmer magazines. Connect with him on .

hank will_2
2/9/2009 2:48:06 PM

Too true Dave. I always like to have a little white dutch clover in the lawn. I just like the way it looks and smells ... and the chickens like it too. When we lived on a college campus some time ago, the grounds guys thought I was nuts when I made them sow a little clover in the back yard of our (the college's) house. I like dandelions too ... but we don't get many on our farm in Kansas. We get some other cool wildflowers though.


nebraska dave
2/9/2009 2:28:07 PM

Hank, that is the question. When is a weed a weed? I can tell you I have walked many a bean row cutting down the corn growing up in the rows. Now they have chemicals that take care of that. It was a good way of staying in shape for me through the summer months as walking in the soft dirt from cultivation (Which little is done anymore) would keep strength in the legs for the coming football season. Seed catalogs all have morning glory flowers that I considered a noxious weed. When I needed to cultivate through a growing patch out in the corn field. It would plug up a cultivator with its viney flowery tendrils in a heart beat. I have to say that I still don't have much love for Morning Glory and sneer in disgust every time I run across seeds for sale in a catalog. However there are those people that love the Morning Glory and I respect that. If there ever was a noxious weed, to me it would be the Canadian Thistle. However my Dad's sheep would head straight for the thorny purple flowered nuisance and eat it to the ground before ever nibbling on the succulent green grass. I see in some seed catalogs one can if procure dandelion seed. I understand that dandelion greens are quite healthful and that the root can be processed into edible food and that wine and tea can be quite soothing when made from the dandelion plant, but I would expect the neighbors around me would call people in the while coats to come and take me away ha ha ho ho hee hee if they actually saw me trying to grow such a plant. So I guess it would seem that one man's weed is another man's food. What is one man's beautiful flower is another man's unwanted weed. So there it is. It's all in the eye of the beholder.