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New Uses for Milkweed

By Linda McGraw
October 1, 1999

Milkweed is a nasty perennial weed, but its chances of growing into a new cultivated crop are getting better, thanks to Agricultural Research Service scientists who are finding several uses for milkweed’s many parts.

Wild milkweed grows along roadsides and in fields in the eastern U.S. as far south as Georgia. Industry has known the value of its fiber, but is now learning the value of its meal and oil.

Milkweed fiber has become the mainstay of a small company, Natural Fibers Corp. of Ogallala, Neb., which began marketing milkweed floss as a filler for comforters in 1989. ARS textile engineers in New Orleans, La., aided the entrepreneurs in blending the floss with cotton to produce a non-woven product.

The problem: what to do with the leftover seedmeal? It contains compounds called cardenolides that produce heart palpitations in people and animals. So the meal can't be used in animal feed. But ARS chemists at the National Center for Agricultural Utilization Research in Peoria, Ill., have found that the seedmeal kills nematodes and fall armyworms. These pests destroy potatoes, tomatoes, soybeans, sorghum, peanuts, corn and alfalfa.

In field studies with Washington State University researchers in Prosser, Wash., milkweed seedmeal killed 97 percent of nematodes on potatoes. Incorporating the seedmeal into the soil might be an alternative to methyl bromide, now severely restricted in the U.S. and other countries.

More good news: Peoria chemist Rogers E. Harry-O'kuru found that milkweed oil--rich in Vitamin E--is free of cardenolides. This knowledge may help establish another market for milkweed’s parts: skin moisturizers. Milkweed oil, modified with lipase enzyme, can hold 18 percent more moisture than unmodified oil, making it an ideal moisturizer ingredient.

ARS' research success on milkweed is just one example of developing value-added products from nontraditional crops: rapeseed, crambe, jojoba, meadowfoam, kenaf, milkweed, lesquerella, cuphea, vernonia and euphorbia lagascae. ARS is USDA's chief scientific agency.

Scientific contact: Rogers E. Harry-O’kuru, New Crops Research Unit, ARS National Center for Agricultural Utilization Research, Peoria, Ill., phone (309) 681-6341, fax (309) 681-6524,