Milkweed, hemp play important historical role in United States


Plants are essential to life.  They contribute in special ways.  Even weeds can enrich the soil or prevent erosion.

For example, milkweed is an exceptional plant.  It is vital to the monarch butterfly, the milkweed butterfly.  Its toxic leaves feed the larval stage.  One bitter bite of the wing of an adult monarch can sicken a predator.  To deter predation, the butterfly’s bright coloration of orange, yellow, black, and white is a reminder of toxicity.

In the past, Native Americans used milkweed’s fiber to weave cloth and construct rope.  They ate milkweed for food (boiled to remove poison).  Medicinally, they applied its sap to bee stings and ringworms.  Settlers soon realized the benefits of milkweed.

The milkweed plant was invaluable during World War II.  When the kapok supply for floating equipment such as life preservers was exhausted, the milkweed seed floss was an excellent substitute.  The floss was lightweight, more buoyant than cork, water repellent and it had insulating properties.  School children eagerly gathered milkweed pods for the war effort.

Another plant in demand was hemp.  Its strong and durable fiber was beneficial during the American colonial era, the Revolutionary War and World War II.

This plant was vital to Britain’s quest for global power through its navy.  Ships needed hemp for sails and rigging.  In 1619, Britain imposed a law for hemp to be cultivated in the Jamestown colony.  The following year, the Mayflower (a merchant ship also equipped with hemp sailcloth and rope rigging) carried hemp seeds aboard on its renown voyage.

Eventually, more colonies were required to cultivate hemp.  As colonists engaged in cottage industries, they needed more of the hemp they grew for their own endeavors, including shipbuilding and clothing.  They bartered with hemp — hemp was legal tender even for taxes.  The crown imposed more taxes, hoping to restrain colonial industries. This ultimately led to the revolution.

During the Revolutionary War, hemp kept the colonial navy afloat. Thomas Jefferson declared, ”Hemp is of first necessity to the wealth and protection of the country.”  He grew hemp, as did Washington.

Historians claim that hemp paper was used for drafts of the Declaration of Independence.  The first American flags were made of hemp. Furthermore, Abraham Lincoln’s lamps were lit by hemp seed oil.

Supposedly, in World War II, hemp seed oil lubricated parts of President George Bush’s airplane engine.  His life-saving parachute displayed hemp webbing.  The ship that saved him was equipped with hemp rope and hemp fire hoses.  His military shoes were stitched with hemp.

Clearly, plants were beneficial in the past. And they continue to contribute.