Monday, May 21, 2012

Useful Plant: Dogbane

Note that this post will be updated throughout the year as I take  photos of the plant in its various stages of development.

Scientific name: Apocynum cannabinum L.

Common name(s): Dogbane, Indian hemp


Dogbane derives its name from its toxic nature. Like most plants that produce a milky sap dogbane is toxic to consume, and many people consider it a nuisance. However, the inner bark of dogbane makes very strong and attractive cordage, and the plant is definitely worth becoming familiar with.


According to the USDA this plant can be found in all of the lower 48 contiguous states as well as much of Canada.  It thrives in“waste areas” such as field edges, roadsides, along streams and in ditches. It seems to prefer full sunlight and moist soil. 


Dogbane ranges from 2’-6’ tall.  It has oppositely arranged elliptical leaves that are about 3” long.  Its flowers are small, white and clustered. The stalks are a distinctive reddish-brown color and about as big around as a Sharpie at the base and tapering to about the size of a pencil at the top. The stalks are hollow and ooze a sticky, milky latex-like substance when damaged. Dogbane produces distinctive brown seedpods in the late summer-fall that are reminiscent of green beans (to me at least).

Note the distinctive seed pod and opposite branching.
For cordage seek out dead (last year’s) plants. The plant itself spreads out at the branches about 2/3 – ¾ up its stalk, and to me the dead plant looks like a miniature staghorn sumac. That shape, along with the distinctive pods and its reddish-brown color, make dogbane relatively easy to find. 

A cluster of dogbane: note the seedpods, branching and reddish-brown shape. I spotted this cluster from about 200' away.

Young dogbane.

Dogbane leaf close-up.
Top view of young dogbane.


For cordage we harvest the previous year’s plants by cutting them at the base. Dogbane seems to store well in relatively dry places….in my unheated garage, for example, it keeps much better than milkweed. It seems relatively rot resistant as I have harvested decent dogbane well into July before.

Dogbane stalk crushed into quadrants
To get to the inner bark (the stringy parts that we make cordage from) we need to split the stalks carefully longitudinally. To do this simply crush the stalk between your fingers … then turn the plant 90 degrees and crush it again. This should result in the stalk being split into 4 roughly equal quadrants. 

To remove the inner, woody layer of the stalk pinch a quadrant of stalk between your hands  with the inside part facing up (leave about 1” between your hands) and  simply bend the stalk down with both hands so that the woody part is forced up. The inner part is then just removed with your thumb(s) leaving just the bark layers. Take your time and do small sections and you will efficiently remove the woody parts and leave the valuable inner bark. Getting overly aggressive will result in your fibers tearing and or sticking to the inner woody part. 

Note how the woody portion separates from the fibers
I do not worry about the thin outer bark… that seems to separate quickly without having to do anything special as I spin it into cordage.  I use a standard two-strand reverse wrap, nothing fancy or special.

Dogbane cordage used as fishing line and to lash a primitive fish hook.

I'd like to extend a "thank you" to Jim Miller of Willow Winds for teaching me the basics of primitive cordage making many, many years ago and for re-teaching me more recently. Jim is an excellent artist, craftsman, outdoorsman and teacher.

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