Asclepias speciosa
family: Milkweed (Asclepidiaceae)
matanáémáxėstse, "milk woods"
> matanáévó'ėstse, "milk plants"; later name
Showy milkweed is perennial plant, 60 to 120 cm tall, separately growing from lignifiing rootstock. Leaves are up to 18 cm long, 4 to 11 cm wide, ovate, rarely lanced, at base heart-like, arranged oposite on the stem. They produce a milky juice. Inflorescence is white, felt-like umbel; flowers pale pink to purple, with calyx 4 to 6 mm long and crown 3 to 12 mm wide. Showy milkweed blossoms from March to April. It grows on moist places along streams and around springs; sometimes on fields, pastures, and weederies. It tolerates alcaline soils. It ranges from British Columbia to Manitoba, Michigan, Illinois, Kansas, central Oklahoma, northern Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California.
Young unopened flower tops and delicate sprouts are eaten green or are boiled, often with meat, fat, or broth. They taste like asparagus. The broth of dried or minced green sprouts was thickened with scrapings of buffalo or deer skins formerly. The flour replaces it today. The thickened broth of showy milkweed is sweetish. Cheyennes add some sugar (sometimes milk) and they cook very palatable equivalent of the fruit pudding. Cheyennes prepare this food for the Sun Dance Ceremony too and it is offered to Ma'heono (Hart 1981: 14; Hooper 1975: 75; Tallbull 1993: 10).
Cheyennes broke the leaves so that the milk juice could flow out. As the juice hardened, they gathered this gummy substance and chewed it. It was very valuable chewing gum. The unmature pods were peeled and the pulp, without outside skin and seeds, was eaten raw. Cheyennes called the unmature milkweed "méstaehámėškone" (owl spoon) because its pods look like spoons and owl’s ears (Grinnell 1923 II: 184; Hart 1981: 15). The Cheyenne boys used to play with mature pods of showy milkweed (Tallbull 1993: 10).
Cheyennes made an eyewash by straining decoction from the top part of showy milkweed. It was applied to the eyes with a clean clout. They used it for general or snow blindness (Hart 1981: 15). Nursing women drank juice from boiled sprouts to support production of the breast milk. Still in 1970’s, this effect of milkweed decoction was well known but it is not clear to what extant the Cheyenne women used it (Hooper 1975: 75). Peter J. Powell (1981: 1126) writes that a Cheyenne medicine woman and midwife rubbed body of newborn baby with "soft milkweed down."
When Cheyennes, after setting on the reservations, began to raise livestock, the milkweed juice served for provisional branding (Northern Cheyenne Tribe 2002, Appendix F: 3). George B. Grinnell (1923 I: 176, 218, 315) pondered that Cheyennes obtained fibers, for threads, lines, bowstrings and so forth, from milkweed stems in olden times. Similar use of milkweed is mentioned among native groups of the northwest USA (Moerman 1998: 108).
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