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What Is a Pleurisy Root?

Certain caterpillars feed on the leaves of pleurisy root plants.
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  • Written By: J.M. Densing
  • Edited By: Jacob Harkins
  • Last Modified Date: 19 December 2014
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Pleurisy root is one of the common names for a wildflower native to North America with the scientific name Asclepias tuberosa, also known as butterfly weed, Indian paintbrush, and orange milkweed. It's a tall, hardy, perennial plant with flowers that are usually orange or red. It grows freely in the wild, and it's a low-maintenance plant in gardens. The name pleurisy root comes from one of the old traditional Native American medicinal uses for the plant's root.

Pleurisy root usually grows to a height of about 12 to 30 inches (30.5 to 76 cm) and can spread out as far as 12 to 24 inches (30.5 to 61 cm) wide. It has tall, slender fuzzy stems, with dark green, narrow pointed leaves. It usually blooms from June to August when it has large, flat clusters, also called umbels, of small brightly colored orange or red flowers. After the flowers fade, they are replaced by a long seed pod that will eventually burst open to release tiny seeds that float through the air suspended on silky fibers.

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The native area of pleurisy root includes a large portion of North America. It's found throughout the United States east of the Rocky Mountains, and in the eastern part of Canada. It does well in a temperate climate, dying back to its tuberous root in the winter with new growth appearing in late spring. It's commonly found along roadsides, in open woods, fields and meadows. Pleurisy root is often used in gardens as well, where it needs very little maintenance.

When planted in the garden, pleurisy root is often used in borders, butterfly gardens, and mixed planting areas with a wild, natural feel. It should be planted in well drained, medium soil. It does well in sandy soil, as well. Pleurisy root needs an average amount of water, but is able to survive drought conditions. It grows best in full sun, and will also do rather well in part shade. Since it is a perennial plant, it will come back each year in the same spot and it doesn't usually crowd out other plants.

The pleurisy root gets its name from the reported Native American practice of chewing on the root to relieve pleurisy, lung inflammation and other respiratory complaints. Additionally it was used as a tea to relieve diarrhea. However, in spite of these past uses, parts of the plant are poisonous if ingested in large quantities. Its primary usefulness today is as a food source for butterflies and hummingbirds that drink its nectar, and for several types of butterfly caterpillar, like the Monarch, that feed on the leaves.

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