Growing up in the country, milkweed was plentiful and easy to recognize.  It was fun to break apart the dried pods and scatter the fluff and seeds about.  My Grandpa probably didn’t appreciate me and my siblings spreading the ‘weed’ in his fields, but I didn’t think about that kind of thing back then.

I still enjoy scattering the seeds . . .

At some point, milkweed became part of the elementary school curriculum – classrooms would observe the monarch chrysalis until the caterpillar emerged and then take it outdoors to eat the leaves from the milkweed they planted on school grounds.

Someone was very hungry!

Hello there, little caterpillar!

While on a road trip with my Mom one day, I remarked at how fragrant the milkweed blossoms are (when I was a kid, I never even knew they had blossoms!) and she said when she was a girl, they used to collect milkweed pods for the war.  What?  What in the world for?  For life preservers.  For what?  For which war?  World War II? It’s not that I didn’t believe my Mom, it’s just that, well, what?


Flowers just coming into bloom

Their fragrance reminds me of lilacs

Mom was kind enough to send me a link to an article A Weed Goes To War, And Michigan Provides The Ammunition by Gerald Wykes. It was fascinating to learn that a shortage in ‘kapok,’ the material previously used for flotation devices, led Dr. Boris Berkman to propose to the US Navy that milkweed floss could keep a man afloat for more than a day and a half.

Once the proposal was approved, it fell to schoolchildren to start gathering the pods.  My Mom was one of them – she was seven or eight at the time.  After school she would gather the pods and take them to her teacher when she went to school the next day.  While the article stated that they were paid for gathering the pods, my Mom doesn’t recall any money changing hands.  Instead, she felt a sense of pride that her efforts were helping to win the war.

Can you imagine this fluff keeping you afloat?

There are other uses for milkweed – insulation, cordage, a hypoallergenic filler for pillows, and cleaning up oil spills.  Maybe I will save some of the silky fibers to make myself a little pillow since I don’t have a current need for insulation or oil spill clean up! 

This is just one example of what I don’t know about the plants around me.  It bothers me that I know so little about what was happening in the world less than a hundred years ago, it bothers me that so much of what people used to know is now lost and will not be passed down to future generations, it bothers me that I never really gave this a lot of thought until recently. It bothers me that the population of the monarch butterfly is heading for extinction if we don’t do something to protect their habitat.  

Though I can’t solve everything that’s bothering me, I will keep on spreading those milkweed seeds wherever I can.  How about you? Please leave a comment here, or on Facebook, or email back if you’re subscribed to receive new posts via email.