Posted by: Michelle UluOla | July 4, 2010

Love Affair With A Weed

Lone Milkweed plant

“A weed is a flower growing in the wrong place.”

– George Washington Carver

It started over 50 years ago, and the passion is stronger than ever. As love affairs go, that’s pretty rare!

When I was a young child, the brown-gray, elfin-ear pods with their pearlescent insides always captivated me. I only saw them in the fall when they magically appeared, perched atop leafless sticks like bouquets of clamshells on skewers–sometimes alone, sometimes clustered together in a family reunion. Their favorite spots were along rural roadside ditches, railroad tracks or the edges of farmers’ fields, becoming visible after all the grass and other plants had collapsed into compost. Lonely sentinels in the wind, their stalks’ pods released puffs of silky strands, blowing good-bye kisses to Summer.

Milkweed pods launching seeds

Photo compliments of John J. Weber©2010

It wasn’t until I was a bit older, collecting them for craft projects in school, that I learned they were Milkweed pods. Cleaned, spray-painted gold or silver, decorated with sequins glued around their rims with tiny scenes from cut up Christmas cards affixed inside their curved cups, they became diorama ornaments for the family tree. Mom was delighted by my creations, and so was I.

Craft supplies cleaned and ready for creating

Milkweed pods for craft projects

Fast forward thirty-some years: my husband and I built a retirement home on the edge of a quiet village in southwest Wisconsin’s dairy country. Back in 1990, there were more cows than people living in this county. Having grown up 25 miles west of Milwaukee in what was then a rural area, the environment was familiar, except the rolling hills and stone cliffs of this Driftless Region are far more beautiful. That autumn, as I gathered dried grasses and seedpods for a centerpiece, I searched in vain for my old friends that would be the stars of the arrangement. Slow drives along country back roads yielded nary a Milkweed pod. Where were they?

Our next-door neighbor was a retired dairy farmer, so I asked him. He told me a surprising tale. During World War II, the government paid children 15 cents per burlap bag of collected Milkweed pods, so the floss could be used to line flight suits and fill “Mae West” life jackets. The kids did a thorough job; they completely wiped out the plant population in this area.

Further research confirmed our neighbor’s story. Long before the development of synthetic fibers, the military had been using the cotton-like ones from tropical Kapok trees. But, once the Japanese gained control of the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia), our main supply of that floss was cut off. With no time to wait two or three years for commercial cultivation, the government enlisted the help of children to harvest the next best substitute: wild Milkweeds’ white, silky filament-like hairs known as pappus, silk, or floss. Turns out, our homegrown floss was waterproof, very buoyant and superior to down feathers for insulation. [Milkweed is now grown commercially as a hypoallergenic filling for pillows.] Two onion sacks of dried pods yielded enough floss for one life jacket, and 1.2 million jackets needing filling. Brochures with the slogan “Two bags save one life” urged: “School children of America! Help save your father’s, brothers’, and neighbors’ lives by collecting milkweed pods.” In addition to the kids from 29 states east of the Rockies, Canadian children pitched in, too. Estimates suggest that by the end of World War II, more than 11 million pounds of Milkweed pods were collected. Given the near weightlessness of a fully loaded pod, that’s astonishing! And, it explained why they were missing from the landscape of Southwest Wisconsin.

All was not lost, though. In November of 1990, while on a road trip to visit friends in Illinois, I spotted familiar silhouettes along the country roads we were taking on our leisurely drive. Thankfully, there was no one behind us, because I slammed on the brakes and jumped out of the car, bag in hand. There was a stand of Milkweeds, and some of the pods still held their treasures. I harvested what I could reach, then repeated the hunt and gather at several other spots along our way. I was giddy as that schoolgirl decades earlier—I had the final pieces for the centerpiece.

Autumn centerpiece with Milkweed pods

Shhhhh…I have a secret to confess. After we got home, I was visited by the spirit of Johnny Appleseed who whispered a suggestion in my ear. I couldn’t resist the idea. So the following spring, after planting some seeds in my garden, we drove along the back roads with the windows down, and I did my imitation of Johnny, setting Milkweed seeds free to repopulate our area. But, that’s only half my story.

Sometimes I wonder about how information I consider so important now, was never taught to me in school, and that disappoints and saddens me. It feels like I was somehow cheated out of knowledge I could have put to practical use for years. On the other hand, those slights have a way of fostering some serendipitous and delightful discoveries for which I’m grateful.

Oddly, despite my infatuation with Milkweed pods, I’d never known the plants in any other stage, nor even thought about it. I didn’t have a clue as to what they looked like before they turned into craft supplies. So, I had no idea what were randomly popping up in our yard and garden the next spring–strange plants with large, thick, oval leaves that looked like tropical, rubber tree houseplants, escapees from someone’s living room. After patiently paging through numerous reference books in my pre-Internet garden library, I had my ah-ha moment: so that’s what Milkweed plants look like! The milk part of their name is suitable, as their sap is creamy-white. It’s also extremely sticky like liquid latex. I watched with fascination as they grew to over four-feet tall, decorated with lovely balls of pink, pendulous flower clusters. I was unprepared for their next surprise. One evening in early July, I walked out onto the patio and was greeted by the most heavenly fragrance perfuming the air. As much as I love the smell of lilacs, this was even better. Imagine my surprise to discover the lowly Milkweed was the source of something more heady than any Chanel creation!

My research sang the praises of Milkweed plants to attract butterflies to one’s yard, especially Monarchs. But, I was surprised to learn their life cycles are totally dependent on that specific plant. While they enjoy sipping the flower nectar, Monarch butterflies only lay their eggs on the undersides of Milkweed leaves, and their caterpillar babies only eat that plant’s leaves until they are ready to start the process of metamorphosis and transform into a chrysalis. Without a reliable supply of Milkweed plants all along the Monarchs’ migration routes that stretch from Mexico to southern Canada, they’re doomed.

Monarchs drink nectar from many plants like this Cone Flower

Monarch drinking nectar from Cone Flower

Photo compliments of John J. Weber©2010

After experiencing the scent of Milkweed flowers and learning about the Monarchs’ need for the plants, it was a no-brainer to integrate them into my gardens. Yes, they can spread with enthusiasm, via seeds and underground rhizomes, but the plants can be easily pulled out or mowed over and adapt well to corralling. They take care of themselves, needing no extra water or fertilizer, but seem to thrive on appreciation. With some extra supports and ties to brace them against the wind when blossoms make them top-heavy, they will out-pace the reference books’ suggested 4 to 5-foot height. They often reach over 6-feet tall in my garden.

Colony to left of arch reached 6.5 feet by July 1, 2010

Milkweed plants integrated into garden

Milkweeds earn extra marks from avid gardeners for being one of the rare plants that provide 4-season interest: tropical green leaf color in spring; fairly long-blooming, fragrant flowers in summer; decorative pods in the fall for both outside and indoor use; and hosts for sparkling ice sculptures in the winter landscape.

Large, thick, tropical leaves with fragrant pink flower balls

Milkweed flowers

Now, more than ever, Milkweed plants need to be grown on purpose. The National Wildlife Federation recently put out a news release saying that Monarch butterflies “are experiencing one of their worst years on record.” It goes on to say, “Due to extreme weather in their winter habitat, as many as half the monarch population died this year. If that wasn’t enough, these butterflies are also facing a triple threat of habitat loss, climate change and non-native plant species overrunning milkweed — the only host plant eaten by their caterpillars.” The Federation encourages home gardeners to come to their aid by planting Milkweeds and creating wildlife habitats in their yards. Friends who join me in growing Milkweed colonies have made the same sad observations I have: Monarch visits have been very sparse over the past couple of years compared to previous ones.

It seems unfortunate that such a lovely and beneficial plant is saddled with the word “weed” as part of its name—makes for lousy PR. Perhaps people need to be reminded that every domesticated plant and hybridized garden flower was born in the wild and grew unhindered there until a human being tinkered with it. We depend on plants in their many forms for food, medicine, clothing, shelter and fuel. They deserve far more respect than most people give them, especially this Cream-Of-The-Crop that was mis-named. John Muir knew what he was talking about when he wrote, “When one tugs at a single thing in nature, he finds it attached to the rest of the world.”

Milkweed plants are free spirits that wander the roads less traveled. They launch their creativity into the wind, letting it carry their parachuted seeds on to new adventures in different locations. After landing, seeds sleep through winter awaiting the arrival of spring’s wake-up call. Then, their flowers perfume the air, attracting butterflies to come hither and sip their nectar. They unconditionally offer up their leaves to nourish a new generation of Monarchs. And after they’ve been stripped bare, and everything around them dies, they celebrate their accomplishments, releasing a new batch of wind-riders.

It’s easy to imagine there were Milkweeds growing in Ralph Waldo Emerson’s yard. Perhaps they were one of his inspirations when he wisely wrote, “What is a weed? A plant whose virtues have not been discovered.” As an individualist and philosopher, he might agree that the same can be said of a lot of people who are ignored, discounted or ridiculed because they don’t seem to fit a conventional mold. Perhaps that’s one more reason I feel a special kinship with Milkweeds. Like them, I’ve also preferred to use Robert Frost’s roadmap and rendezvous with other free spirit friends whose discovered virtues I salute and celebrate.

Exuberant celebration!

Milkweed pods releasing seeds

********************

ADDITIONAL INFORMATION:

View exquisite photos of Monarch butterflies, their caterpillars, chrysalis and metamorphosis, and read all about their life cycles and astonishing migration at the Monarch Butterfly Website.

See maps and track Monarchs’ actual migration at Journey North.

Become part of National Wildlife Federation’s Certified Wildlife Habitat™ program in your own yard.

Check out an interesting article listing historical, Native American practical and medicinal uses for Milkweed plant parts here.

*********©UluOla 2010*********


Advertisements

Responses

  1. Michelle, it was a real pleasure to read your love for the milkweed. I did not know about its usage in the second world war. Being the son of a farmer, I have also always liked this plant with its light fibres being carried away in the fall. My mother collected the fibres and made cushions with them.

    There is a company in Canada, Protec-Style, which is set on exploring the wonderful properties of this plant. I have participated as an engineer in the development of the production equipment used to separate the seeds from the fibres. Because of the rose-like scent of the flowering milkweed we also name this plant “la rose des pauvres” (poor man’s rose) or “petit cochon” (piglet) because of the shape of the pods.

    You can see more about our efforts to use this plant and help save the Monarch in this video:

    Like

    • Merci beaucoup, Yves, for your kind words and interesting comments. I love the name, “la rose des pauvres” (poor man’s rose), which is so appropriate! I was surprised and thrilled the first time I discovered its heavenly fragrance. Thank you, also, for the link–how wonderful that Milkweed is making a comeback!! And as a result, saving Monarchs that have been suffering from habitat loss. Did you see the blog I wrote after this one about Monarchs? https://uluola.wordpress.com/2010/08/31/against-all-odds-monarch-metamorphosis/ Good luck with all your efforts! Happy New Year!

      Like

  2. Michelle,What a wonderful story! Growing up in Pa. I remember having such fun shaking the milkweed pods and watching the “fairies” take off and fly with the breeze. I had no idea the flowers were so fragrant or that the Monarchs lay their eggs on the leaves. It is too bad that science teachers don’t share the flight jacket/life vest information with their students. Native Americans used milkweed and cattail fluff inside of soft animal hide as diapers and for women’s monthly flow. I will definitely be starting my own milkweed patch this year in my yard and will plant one in the yard of my son’s new home he just moved into this week! Thank you so much for sharing this wonderful information ❤ Suli

    Like

    • Thank you, Suli, for your great comments–I will be happy to share seeds with you! ESPAVO! M

      Like

  3. Michelle, what a wonderful posting on milkweed. I got informed and enjoyed the “painting” words with a vivid picture of it.
    Love, light and blessings♥
    Angelika

    Like

    • Thank you for your kind words, Angelika! It’s amazing how many people don’t know the amazing Monarch story and their dependence on milkweed. I’m elated to report that I’ve had a fair number of visitors this year and have counted about a dozen caterpillars in various stages of growth, on their way toward the chrysalis stage. Blessings of Love and Light to you! Michelle

      Like

  4. Loved your posting on milkweed Michelle. I have had it growing in my garden near my back door for nearly 15 years….showed up one year and have let it take its place among the lilies and queen annes lace…last year the caterpillars ate the leaves down to the spines. I had at least 5-6 chrysalis hanging like translucent pearls from my siding. I have been lucky enough to watch one monarch go through the birth/emerge process, it was hard work took all day, a bit “bloody” and breathless when it finally opened its wings to dry before flight. Magical. the scent is truly heavenly when blooming, you are so correct. Now I know why it is so scarce in our otherwise so lush an area, botanically. Claudia

    Like

    • Thank you, Claudia, for the great comments; glad you enjoyed my blog. How cool that you’ve actually gotten to see the whole process. The only chrysalis we spotted here ended up bug-drilled and destroyed before the butterfly could emerge–so sad! I’m hoping for better luck this year. Still waiting to see caterpillars.

      Like

  5. I am noticing a major drop in Monarch visits over previous years. Update on plight of Monarchs as posted here:
    http://butterflybushes.com/milkweed.htm “In 1975 a scientist named Frederick Urquhart discovered that Monarch butterflies overwinter in the Oyamel fir forests in central Mexico. Most of the Monarch colony resides for the winter at Sierra Chincua or El Rosario. The first four days of February, 2010, a violent winter storm caused disastrous flooding and landslides in Sierra Chincua and El Rosario. Well over 50% of the overwintering Monarch population was killed as a result of the storm. Scientists predict that the number of Monarch returning to the northern range of their breeding grounds (the US and Canada) this summer will be fewer than at anytime since the overwintering colonies were first discovered in Mexico in 1975. And because of this, the expectation is that the number of Monarchs returning to Mexico in the fall of 2010 will also be dramatically reduced. If any of you have in the past contemplated the idea of planting Milkweed (the host plant for Monarch butterflies) to help Monarchs in their quest for survival, this might be the year to act. Monarchs are going to need all the help they can get this summer.”

    Like

  6. Michelle

    THanks for the info on Milkweeds – did some local googling (always on the lookout for an interesting plant for the farm) and came across these two: http://www.herbgarden.co.za/mountainherb/herbinfo.php?id=31 and http://www.joburg.org.za/content/view/2098/198/ Such a pity I can’t “beam me up” some seeds from you LOL Will do a seach for locally available seeds – as I love making homemade festive decorations – I prefer more nature(al) ornaments / decoration to plastic shop bought goods – seems more in the spirit of the holiday. We have made decorations out of Jacaranda seed pods in the past – decorating with alphabet soup noodles which are then sprayed gold – the individual noodles can be touched up with another colour e.g. red / green / silver. Always a fun family occasion. 🙂

    Like

    • You’re welcome, Dani. While my first inclination would be to try to get you some seeds, I’ve been noticing lately how many areas around the world are suffering from invasions of non-indigenous, “introduced” species of plants, birds and other animals. Those “it seemed like a good idea at the time” efforts. A friend in Hawaii is having his gardens uprooted by wild pigs that were brought to the island by someone without thought for the “unintended consequences.” We’re having native habitat overrun by plants that were mis-introduced. Milkweed plants have a symbiotic relationship with Monarch butterflies here. The ones I grow are “Common Milkweed” or Asclepias syriaca. The ones listed in your area, Asclepias physocarpa, are the same family, different variety and different kind of seed pod. Wish I could send you some of the empty pods to use for crafting, but I doubt the “powers that be” would allow that…

      Like

      • Yes, LOL, my first inclination was also to ask you to pop a couple of seeds in an envelope – but, I too, am very aware of the pitfalls of introducing alien plants on a whim – we have a huge problem with the Australian Black Wattle and Port Jackson to name but two. All imported years ago for a specific function, without due consideration of the ramifications of the introduction, which has resulted in a project called Working for Water. (see http://www.dwaf.gov.za/wfw/Control/ )

        Guess it’s a case of the world having too much knowledge / access to everything, and everyone wanting what everyone else has…

        Thanks for the “first inclination”, but I do know that we have plants that can / will fulfill my crafting need. And nice to know I also share that in common with you.

        Like


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Categories

%d bloggers like this: