Gods like this weed

Food for the Plain Tiger butterfly, this beautiful and easy to grow 'weed', Bili Yekka is in demand during Ganesha Chaturthi.

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.

The Giant Milkweed. Pic: Vikram Nanjappa.

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.


  1. Jerson M. Cusher says:

    It is very nice to known about this plant. Vikaram you have taken nice photo of it. I always wander why such beautiful flowers grow in wild. and why they are so much allergic? when ever i see wild flowers i admire them but i can not touch them or pluck them because i am highly allergic to them. but they are really beautiful.

  2. dr shubha badami says:

    the calotropis leaves are also in demand during the festival of the sun god, ratha saptami in february. custom in brahmin household dictated that, on that day, the leaf was placed on each shoulder of the surya worshipper with a pinch of raw rice on it as he prepared to bathe. The waters running over the leaf possibly were medicinal, is my inference.But would like an explanation from mythology if available?

  3. Deepa Mohan says:

    Didn’t know about the leather applications, thank you.

  4. Vikram Nanjappa says:

    I was not able to find an explanation from mythology but it forms one of the five arrows with
    which Kama (God of Love) is supposed to pierce the hearts of young mortals and the significance of the purification bath on Ratha Sapthami which includes holding of several Calotropis Gigantea leaves on the head while bathing and chanting a verse is supposed to invoke the benevolence of the Lord (God Vishnu in his form as Surya -the Sun-God) in all that one indulges in during the rest of the year. Leaves of Calotropis along with the flowers and fruits of Datura plant are used in the worship of Lord Shiva in various temples of India including the Lingraj Temple of Bhubaneswar in Orissa. The garlands of flowers of Calotropis are used in the worship of Hanuman on Saturdays and Swetark Ganapati is obtained from the root of this shrub that sometimes takes the shape of Lord Ganesh. The Calotropis Shrub that produces white and fragrant flowers is called as Swetark. It is believed that those who worship this idol of Ganesh enjoy the presence of Mahadevi Laxmi and Lord Shiva. Swetark Ganapati is worshiped to achieve knowledge and power, to get promotion in jobs and to increase business, to maintain harmony in married life, to get rid from the hardships of insufficiency, to activate positive energy in the house and to get victory on enemies.

  5. Maragathavalli Inbamuthiah says:

    Interesting article. In my village, I have heard folks say that the milk from this plant has healing properties and is a good medicine for cuts and bruises.

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