The Bangalore East Railway Station is very close to my house and very often I find myself walking along the railway tracks looking for butterflies and other urban wildlife. The bushes and shrubs along the line are a haven for urban wildlife. One day among the bushes and shrubs, I happened to chance upon a familiar plant, almost like an old friend. It was the Milkweed.
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Milkweed is also known as French cotton, crown flower or bonba in Spanish is a soft wooded, evergreen shrub. Its long limbs hold six to eight-inch opposite leaves that come from a clasping heart-shaped base and end in a blunt point. They are celedon-green, thick and leathery, covered with a white fuzz that will rub off. The bark is corky and furrowed. It is native to West Africa as far south as Angola, North and East Africa, Madagascar, the Arabian Peninsula, southern Asia, and Indochina to Malaysia. They are found in open habitats like overgrazed pastures, beachfront dunes, roadsides, and disturbed urban lots. The species grows in dry habitat. They love soils with high salt saturation, live on beachfront dunes, are drought tolerant.
The Milkweeds have medicinal properties and their scientific name comes from the Greek Asklepios – God of medicine. It is used in Ayurveda to cure in cases of cutaneous diseases, intestinal worms, cough, ascites, asthma, bronchitis, dyspepsia, paralysis, swellings, intermittent fevers, anorexia, inflammations and tumors. In large doses it is also known to act as a purgative and as an emetic. Eating this plant can cause the heartbeat to slow into hypotension and death.
It is a weed growing wild on empty plots. Its milky sap gives it its name. Don’t touch it, some people have allergic reactions. The latex is toxic and can cause blisters and rashes on sensitive people.
The Milkweed belongs to Asclepiadaceae family of flowering plants. The two most commonly found members of the family are The Giant Milkweed (Calotropis gigantus) and Sodom’s Apple (Calotropis procera).
Called Bili Yekka in Kannada, it is strung into garlands sold during Ganesha Chaturti. It is also a draped over pictures and statues of Shiva.
The Giant Milkweed plays its part in the urban ecosystem; it is the food plant of the Plain Tiger butterfly and the Painted Grasshopper. It is also a beautiful and easy to grow plant. They can be easily propagated from cuttings. However they do not grow well in the shade. If you have a patch of poor soil that gets too much of sun then the Milkweed is the answer. Not only will it add beauty to your garden it will also attract one of the most striking butterflies in India – The Plain Tiger.
Traditional leather manufacturers ferment Calotropis and mix it with salt, and use it to remove the hair from goat skins for production of "nari leather" and of sheep skins to make leather.