One of the first plants I think I could identify as a child was milkweed. That was before I even associated its fireworks flowers with its flying fairy seeds. I was attracted to its dramatic pods that could be opened to reveal the precise rows of seeds sleeping with their folded parachutes waiting to awaken and catch the wind. I liked to help them start their mysterious journeys. I would crack their case, wave them high and wish them well.
Just about the time I found out that they weren’t fairies, I learned they were essential for Monarch butterflies, and who can resist their saga? These amazing butterflies actually go through four generations each year with the last generation living up to 8 months so it flap as far as 2,500 miles. Neat site on their migration here.
The gorgeous monarch butterflies we see flitting from flower to flower don’t need milkweed. Adults can sip nectar from any flower, but without milkweed, they would never make it to adulthood, or survive in the cold, cruel world. Monarchs wear their vivid orange and black patterns we call beautiful as a warning sign to frogs, birds, mice and lizards they meet on their journey. They are poisonous, and their predators know it. They get their poison from chemicals the butterfly larva consume as they eat the milkweed plants they grow up on.
So, back to the milkweed. I was really happy to find a few plants growing on our 44 acres, and I have encouraged them for five years. When I’m scything out wild parsnip (See my post, Warning It’s Parsnip Season here ) and other invasives, I always take a minute to open up the area around the milkweed, and I have watched their populations increasing. I haven’t gone so far as to plant them anywhere yet, but that time is coming.
What I am not quite sure of is exactly which milkweed plant is growing on my land. It may be common milkweed (asclepias syriaca) or it may be prairie milkweed (Asclepias sullivanti). They seem very similar to me
I don’t care if it is merely “common.” I don’t think the Monarch butterflies do either.
Common milkweed can benefit humans as well as butterflies, and I have plans for making more use of my milkweed. This fall I am going to collect the fluff and keep it in the barn. Then put it out in the spring for birds who are looking for nesting materials. (I’m keeping my Golden Retriever, Tombo’s, prolific fur for the same reason.) I found a site that sells a special nesting material holder here. And I’m thinking about getting one.
The story is that school children gathered this fluff during World War II to stuff life preservers for the armed forces because the Japanese were occupying Indonesia where the usual filler, kapok , grows. I have read that milkweed may become an important fiber crop yet. I actually hope not. It’s too easy to imagine flocks of Monarchs doing loop-de-loops for joy as they sight an entire field of milkweek below – only to land on it and be killed by whatever insecticide Monsanto has dreamed to protect their profits. (oh oh – Do I sound almost as bitter as milkweed sap?)
Speaking of bitter milkweed sap, I have read in many places that milkweed at certain points in its cycle is very edible for humans. There are also many warnings about its toxic qualities. Next year I am going to check it out for myself. Foraging on my land is one of my greatest joys. (Check out my post, Please Pass the Garlic Mustard here ).
I read that the shoots and tops taste like wild asparagus. You can find the tips pushing up through the old stalks in late May. The smaller they are, the better they taste. Aim for 3-6 inches shoots. Boil in salted water about 20 minutes or until tender. (I will, of course, be careful to leave plenty for the Monarchs.)
Later on, I have read you can eat the unopened flower buds. I saw plenty of those this summer but was too busy photographing them and admiring their beauty to eat them. I will sample them next year.
The next edible stage is the pod. They appear at the base of the flower stalk as the flowers wither. I read that the smallest pods, under an inch long are the best, but I’m not going to eat those. That seems like too little food to make it worth interfering with the milkweed’s life cycle.
and time for the fairies –I mean fluff
Soon they will each have flown, but all winter long I’ll have their gray-brown sculptural cases to admire against the winter landscape — connecting me to the Monarch butterflies as they quietly continuing their cycle far to the South, and we both wait for spring.