Milkweed has been on my mind since last winter when John and I got involved with an organization called Make Way for Monarchs. As many people know, milkweed is the sole food source for Monarch caterpillars. Monarchs are migratory butterflies that travel from all over the United States to overwintering sites in Mexico and California. Their populations have plummeted in the past decades primarily due to loss of milkweed habitat. The heavy reliance on herbicides with the advent of GMO crops and loss of wild plant buffers areas are primary culprits in their demise.
John and I have converted 14 acres of what used to be a hayfield into a pollinator sanctuary. We’ve let the milkweeds, goldenrod, joe-pye weed and a whole bunch of great pollinator plants take over as well as planting a variety of trees and shrubs for the bees. All summer long I’ve been enamored with the beauty and diversity of the sanctuary especially one of its inhabitants – the common milkweed. Its sweet aroma in June and July with its buzzing bees and flitting butterflies including lots of Monarchs was heavenly. In August, I saw Monarch caterpillars on Milkweed leaves which was awesome, and in September, there were several adults ready to migrate to Mexico. During the past two months, I’ve been enjoying the milkweed pods breaking open and sending the fluffy white floss with its brown seed into the wind.
I’ve been collecting seeds to pass out at our Pollinator Talk at the NOFA Winter Conference, experimenting artistically with the pods (see photo), spinning the silky down fibers of the seeds, taking Wabi Sabi pictures of the brown remnants of the plants, and trying to spin the long tough fibers of the stalk into cordage. The only glitch in my milkweed love affair has come from moving the electric fence wire to give new grazing space for the horses, I’ve been continually snagging on the dried pods and stalks. They don’t want to let go.
So when I heard that milkweed pods were collected by school children during the war and the white floss was used for making life preservers needed when transporting all those soldiers, I was excited that all my interests had converged around one very common plant. Unfortunately, when I went to research the milkweed story, I found out that it was WWII not WWI.
In WWI, they used kapok fibers from the tropical kapok tree for make life jackets. Interestingly, nectar drinking bats are the pollinators of the kapok flowers rather than the bumblebees and honeybees feeding on our milkweed. The kapok tree originated in Africa and the New World but was introduced into Asia and Indonesia to create a flourishing kapok industry. During WWII, the Japanese occupied Indonesia (then called Java) which resulted in the shortage of kapok fibers for our military uses. Thus, the need for school children to help the war effort by collecting millions and millions of milkweed pods. About 2 bushels of pods provided enough silky floss for one life jacket. The kids made about 15 cents a bushel.
Still used for pillows and stuffing, milkweed fibers are usually mixed with goose down. I stumbled on to a company, Milkweed Flyway, which is making products from the seed oil as well as the fluffy floss. It’s located in Nebraska and one of their goals is to promote the return of the monarch by making milkweed floss and seeds important commercial products so landowners will want to keep it around so they can sell it. Sounds like a great idea. I’ve just ordered some of their healing balm.
Next time, you happen to see some milkweed on the side of the road or watch the fuzzy floss flying on the breeze on a sunny autumn day, don’t forget the continued importance of milkweed even though it wasn’t used in WWI.