When it comes to plants, it’s easy to get confused by similar names and appearances.
Milkweed and milk thistle may sound like they’re related, but in reality, they’re two very different plants.
While both are attractive to wildlife, one is a beloved native plant with medicinal properties, while the other is an invasive weed that can cause harm if ingested.
In this article, we’ll explore the differences between milkweed and milk thistle, and why it’s important to know which is which.
So let’s dive in and learn more about these two plants!
Are Milkweed And Milk Thistle The Same Thing?
No, milkweed and milk thistle are not the same thing. They may share similar names and appearances, but they have distinct differences in uses, growth patterns, and toxicity levels.
Milkweed is a brightly flowering plant that attracts a wide variety of wildlife, including the beloved monarch butterfly. It has a long history as a natural remedy and is used for medicinal purposes. Milkweed grows in the spring and blooms in the middle of summer, making it a popular addition to gardens and natural landscapes.
On the other hand, milk thistle is an invasive weed that can take over poorly managed fields and roadside areas. It is toxic if ingested in large quantities and can make livestock sick. Milk thistle grows in the summer and blooms just as the season is ending, making it a common sight in many areas.
What Is Milkweed?
Milkweed is a bright and attractive plant that is known for its large, colorful flowers that attract a plethora of fauna, including butterflies, bees, and other pollinators. It is also the larval host for the monarch butterfly and the milkweed tussock moth. Milkweed is a popular addition to gardens and natural landscapes due to its ability to attract a wide variety of wildlife.
Milkweed is also used for medicinal purposes and has a long history as a natural remedy. The sap of the milkweed plant contains chemicals that are toxic to many animals, including humans, but it has been used for centuries to treat a variety of ailments, including skin conditions, respiratory problems, and digestive issues.
Milkweed grows in the spring and blooms in the middle of summer. It can be found along roadsides and in pastures, making it a common sight in many areas. Milkweed plants can reach up to six feet in height and have large leaves that are arranged opposite each other on the stem. The flowers are typically pink, purple, or white and are arranged in clusters at the top of the stem.
The Importance Of Milkweed For Wildlife
Milkweed is an essential plant for many species of wildlife, especially the monarch butterfly. Monarch caterpillars feed exclusively on milkweed leaves, making it the only host plant for this iconic butterfly species. Without milkweed, monarchs cannot complete their life cycle and their populations decline. The eradication of milkweed in agricultural areas and urban landscapes is one of the primary reasons that monarchs are in trouble today.
Milkweed is also a nectar plant for many different butterfly species, attracting them to its brightly colored flowers. Birds like the American goldfinch will nest in milkweed plants and feed upon the seed heads. Milkweed contains complex chemicals called cardenolides, which help defend the plant from herbivores, parasites, and pathogens. Monarch caterpillars and other milkweed specialist herbivores have physiological adaptations that allow them to sequester cardenolides and use them in their own defense against predators.
The nectar in all milkweed flowers provides valuable food for butterflies, bees, and other pollinators. Butterflies don’t only need nectar but also need food at the caterpillar stage. The leaves of milkweed plants are the ONLY food that monarch caterpillars can eat! And monarch butterflies need milkweed to lay their eggs. With shifting land management practices and pesticide use, we have lost much milkweed from the landscape. This has led to a 90% decline in the number of eastern monarchs in just a single decade.
Medicinal Properties Of Milkweed
Milkweed has been used for medicinal purposes by various Native American tribes for centuries. The plant has antimicrobial and antiseptic properties and has been traditionally used to treat a multitude of conditions. Crushed milkweed leaves were applied externally to treat skin ulcers, skin cancers, wounds, ringworm, and headaches. The root was made into a powder or juice and applied topically to cure tumors and to treat wounds, boils, and rashes. The sap was used externally for leprosy, to make warts and freckles disappear, to lighten skin, and to treat ear infections.
Milkweed seeds were also used for medicinal purposes. They were sometimes used on sores and were chewed to ease coughs, fevers, and asthma. Milkweed was even added to dishes for flavor or to thicken soups. However, it is important to note that milkweed is toxic if ingested in large quantities and should not be used for medicinal purposes without proper preparation and guidance from a healthcare professional.
What Is Milk Thistle?
Milk thistle, also known as blessed milk thistle, is a plant that is native to southern Europe, North Africa, and Asia. It has since spread across the world and is often found in disturbed soils and poorly tended fields. Milk thistle is classified as a Class A noxious weed in Washington State and eradication is required due to its invasive nature.
Despite its status as a weed, milk thistle has been relied upon for over 2,000 years for its ability to protect the liver. In recent years, it has gained popularity as a life-saving substance for people with severe liver damage. Milk thistle is available in various forms, including capsules, tablets, liquid extracts, and teas.
It is important to note that milk thistle is toxic if ingested in large quantities and can make livestock sick. Property owners in King County are required to remove this plant if it occurs on their property, and it is illegal to sell or buy milk thistle in Washington State. The species is on the Washington quarantine list and it is prohibited to transport or distribute plants or plant parts within the state.
The Dangers Of Milk Thistle
While milk thistle has many potential health benefits, it is important to note that it can be dangerous if consumed in large quantities. This plant is toxic to livestock and can form dense stands in pastures and rangeland, making it a noxious weed that can cause harm to animals.
In California, milk thistle stands of up to 4 tons per acre have been reported in heavily infested areas. The largest infestations in the state are found in pastures in the southeastern section of King County, but infestations can be found elsewhere as well. It is essential to detect and respond quickly to these infestations to prevent harm to livestock and other animals.
While milk thistle supplements are available for purchase, it is important to use them with caution and only as directed. Dr. Oz recommends them for liver detoxification, but it is unclear if the same benefits can be obtained from foraging for milk thistle or its parts. It is also important to note that milk thistle may interact with certain medications, so it is essential to consult with a healthcare provider before using it as a supplement.
The Benefits Of Milk Thistle For Liver Health
Milk thistle has gained a reputation for its ability to protect and nourish the liver. The liver is responsible for detoxifying the blood, and milk thistle aids in this process by neutralizing free radicals that can cause damage to liver cells. The active substance in milk thistle, silymarin, acts as a toxin blockade, preventing toxins from binding to receptors on liver cell membranes. This function makes milk thistle a useful agent in helping to prevent liver cirrhosis, liver disease, and potentially liver cancer.
Studies have shown that milk thistle can improve liver function and increase survival rates in people with cirrhosis or chronic hepatitis. It has also been found to reduce liver inflammation and damage caused by free radicals. Milk thistle is often recommended as a complementary therapy for people who have liver damage due to conditions like alcoholic liver disease, non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, hepatitis, and even liver cancer.
Milk thistle is particularly effective in treating a certain kind of mushroom poisoning caused by the death cap mushroom. Studies have shown that silymarin has been helpful in treating the toxins produced by this mushroom, which can lead to liver damage and even liver failure.
While more research is needed to determine the optimal dose and length of treatment for specific liver conditions, milk thistle extract is commonly used as a complementary therapy for people with liver diseases. It is important to note that there is currently no evidence that milk thistle extract can prevent you from getting these conditions, especially if you have an unhealthy lifestyle. Overall, milk thistle has a good track record when it comes to protecting and improving the health of the liver.