One of my earliest memories of fall family outings was encountering stands of milkweed plants along the roadsides, walking trails, meadows, and vacant lots.
By Bill Lawyer
One of my earliest memories of fall family outings was encountering stands of milkweed plants along the roadsides, walking trails, meadows, and vacant lots. The plants had been there since the spring, but it was only as summer turned to fall that the unique feature of the milkweed plant became easily recognizable — the appearance of large, greenish-brown pods.
Someone, probably my father, gave me a quick introduction to how they worked. Inside the pods was cotton-like fluff with seeds attached. If you opened them at the right time, you could blow on the fluff or wave the pods around and off they would go, into the air, landing who-knows where. If they came upon the right conditions, the seeds would germinate the following spring and new stands would appear.
The way that milkweed plants spread their seeds is sort of the way Internet podcasts spread information, music and just about anything else, from one person to another, possibly taking root.
While milkweed is hard to cultivate commercially, numerous botanists have noted that during World War II, when there were shortages of cotton, school children around the United States collected the milkweed floss so that it could be used in making life preservers for the military.
Ethno-botanist Sam Thayer reports on his “Forager’s Harvest” website that milkweed floss “is being used by a Nebraska company to stuff jackets, comforters, and pillows” due to its efficient insulating quality.
But there’s a lot more to milkweed plants than their podcasting ability and practical utility. Common name not withstanding, the milkweed plant is no weed, in the negative sense of that word.
They are an important part of nature’s web of life. For one thing, milkweed is a native plant that has been able to hold its own, despite heavy competition from non-native, invasive weeds that do well in similarly disturbed habitats. In addition to spreading by the use of seeds, milkweed plants also travel by means of underground roots, known as rhizomes. Another well-known plant that spreads this way is bamboo.
To really appreciate milkweed plants, you need to go out and see one, up close and personal. For me, the easiest place to find them is by the Milton Road playing field across from the Milton Cemetery. The City’s maintenance staff has allowed large sections of open space at the playing field to grow as a wildlife meadow, with a large variety of plants and animals. A recent visit revealed a very healthy stand of milkweed, right at the edge of the meadow. Several of the pods had already opened up, revealing the fluff.
At first glance it appeared that there were large, red and black seeds inside the pods. Upon closer inspection, however, I realized that they were in fact a type of insect known as milkweed bugs. They were happily sipping away at the milky fluid inside the milkweed plants.
There are over 40 species of butterflies, bees, birds, bugs, and spiders that are associated with milkweed. Probably the most famous are the monarch butterflies. Milkweed is the only plant on which monarch butterflies will lay their eggs, and it is the primary food source for monarch caterpillars.
Because of milkweed’s importance to biodiversity, ecologists are encouraging people to set aside part of their gardens to plant milkweed to make up for the loss of milkweed habitat in the wild. And, it will provide you with a chance to enjoy the wonders of nature’s podcasters, right in your backyard.