Common milkweed (asclepias syriaca), also called butterfly flower, is a plant native to North America that colonizes unexploited fields, vacant lots and even grows on roadsides.


Milkweed illustration

Milkweed as a high-level thermal insulator

The fibers attached to milkweed seeds have an almost perfectly round tubular structure. The air contained within the fibers constitutes a perfect protection against heat transfer, making it particularly effective as a thermal insulator, especially when it is agglomerated in the form of a membrane.

Another interesting property that makes milkweed fibers even more suitable as an outerwear lining: they are naturally coated with a wax that completely repels water (hydrophobic). So besides keeping clothes warm, milkweed insulation keeps them dry! This is an impressive advantage over other textile insulators available on the market, which absorb water easily and retain moisture, while having a much better ecological and ethical impact.

Moreoever, this advantage is twofold: Milkweed repels moisture from outside (snow, rain, etc.) as much as that from inside (perspiration).

Fibres d'asclépiade vues au microscope électronique (Crédit: Scimat)

Other industrial uses

Flotation equipment
During World War II, when the supply of kapok from Asia was blocked by Japan, milkweed was harvested on a large scale in Canada and the United States as an alternative to fill the life jackets of sailors and aviators. Luckily, the hydrophobic properties of milkweed could make the jackets float for up to 8 hours. Of course, this was all before the arrival of synthetic materials and, unfortunately, the potential was abandoned over time.

Oil spill absorbent
One of the most promising economic outlet of milkweed is undoubtedly to serve as a high-level absorbent for oil spills. Indeed, the same tubular structure of the fibers which gives them their insulating property also makes them lipophilic, that is to say capable of retaining oily materials. It goes without saying that this feature would be very useful for containing spills of petroleum products in aquatic ecosystems. At equal weight, milkweed absorbs 5 times more diesel than the material most currently used on the market for this purpose (polypropylene), in addition to floating perfectly and absorbing no water! Milkweed is a miraculous alternative to this level, especially when you think about the current industry of petroleum sorbents, which are ironically made from petroleum.

Ogallala Comfort, an American company, uses milkweed and down to fill their bedding products. Naturally hypoallergenic, milkweed repels moisture, dust and mites. It gives superior quality to Ogallala products, compared to its competitors.

The oil that is extracted from milkweed seeds is closely regarded for its potential as a base for cosmetics, such as skin lotions or sunscreen. With a chemical process, it is actually possible to convert the triglycerides in milkweed oil into compounds that absorb UV rays. Maybe we will see this in a distant future, but it sure looks promising!

The milkweed revolution is here, everywhere around us ... all you have to do is harvest it!