Saturday, October 8, 2011

...useful wild greens to learn...

Most people know milkweed simply as food for the monarch butterfly's caterpillar, or as a tenacious, pesky weed of hayfields. If those butterflies weren't so beautiful, and if their annual migration to Mexico weren't so amazing, few people would care what happened to this herb. But milkweed isn't your average weed.
In World War II, schoolchildren across the Midwest collected thousands of pounds of milkweed fluff to stuff life preservers for the armed forces in the Pacific, because kapok, the normal material used for this purpose, came from Japanese-occupied Indonesia and was unavailable. Today, you can buy pillows, jackets, and comforters stuffed with this material, which is wonderfully soft and has a higher insulative value than goose down, from a company called Ogallala Down, in Ogallala, Nebraska. Some people believe that milkweed will become an important fiber crop, as one of its attributes is that it is perennial and therefore does not need to be replanted every year. Milkweed stalks also produce a coarse, sisal-like fiber that can be used for twine, which varies in strength from one plant to the next. This possibility has been little explored commercially, but it was well known to Native Americans.
The milkweed that we are talking about here is the common milkweed Asclepias syriaca. There are numerous other species of milkweed in North America, but common milkweed is by far the best known. It is abundant in the whole area east of the shortgrass prairies, north of the Deep South, and south of the boreal forests of Canada. It is a common sight of roadsides, fencerows, meadows, sunny woods, and abandoned fields. Common milkweed produces pairs of large, oblong, thick leaves all along its unbranching stem, which is typically three to six feet tall. Both the flowers and the okra-like pods are quite distinctive, as is this herb's growth form. When broken, all parts of the plant produce a white latex, but there are many other plants with this characteristic. Overall, milkweed is a beautiful and very distinctive plant.
I am amazed that, as much attention as milkweed has received as a fiber crop and a butterfly planting, so little has been said about its use as food. Ethnographic records show that common milkweed was eaten as a vegetable by tribes throughout its range. It provides edible shoots (like asparagus), flower bud clusters (like broccoli), and immature pods (like okra). The soft silk inside the immature pods is a unique food, and the flowers are also edible. Milkweed conveniently provides one or more edible parts from late spring until late summer, making it one of the most useful wild greens to learn.
Forager's Harvest 2003

and learn i just did.
i LOVE milkweeds.
they grow happily around the back of the house.
and in the fields.
i love when the caterpillar comes
and stay awhile on the leaves.
and i am always a fan of
watching the monarchs flutter around.
i think i might go gather milkweed fluff
for a pillow!!
you can go see more shadows.
it is going to be a gorgeous fall day
in northern michigan.
lower 80's.
definitely a good day to gather fluff.
just BE.


The Summer Kitchen Girls said...

Wow...never knew about the fluff being collected during the war...or that it is still used today for pillows and jackets - we'll have to explore! Today is a great day to collect fluff....October seems to have brought us some beautiful fall weather! Enjoy!!

Ralph said...

This plant is amazing, it seems to grow where a spore lands, and growing on the railing post means it has a mind of its own...We are used to the large agribusiness concerns and their giant fields. Here, this is more natural, growing as it does without a farmer's touch. An amazing and slight flower, the softest vegetation that I have seen. Soft and wonderful in function as well as form...

Kay L. Davies said...

What interesting information, Robin. I had no idea milkweed was such a useful plant, but of course the native North Americans knew which plants were edible and available to them, which plants could be used for fibers — and, apparently, pillows and maybe even duvets, not that native North Americans called anything a duvet, but they certainly had to be able to stay warm in winter.
Fabulous post, and beautiful shadows.

Kay, Alberta, Canada
An Unfittie’s Guide to Adventurous Travel

Magical Mystical Teacher said...

Gather ye milkweed fluff while ye may!


Shadows like horses, shadow likes chicks,
Shadows like houses built with red bricks;

Shadows much taller than a high wall—
No matter their shape, I love them all!

© 2011 by Magical Mystical Teacher

Tortured Shadows and Twisted Shadows

Anonymous said...

Amazing photos, and thanks for such an informative post. The seeds look similar to our thistle seeds.

Cassie said...

What a wonderful post! I never knew all these exciting facts about milkweed. We used to have lots of it in PA where I grew up. Now I must pass this info on to my 88yr old mother to see if she was aware of it. Happy SSS!!

Sylvia K said...

Marvelous shadow shot and such an interesting post, Robin! I do love the milkweed, but haven't seen any around where I live now so I really enjoyed your photo and the information! Hope you have a wonderful weekend!


Tatjana Parkacheva said...

Very interesting post and beautiful photos.

Regards and best wishes

Gemma Wiseman said...

An amazing range of information on the milkweed! I was stunned by its versatility! A gem of a plant far beyond common! And love the soft macro monochromes you present too!

Paula Scott said...

Thank you so much for the milkweed lesson. I had known just a fraction of this and I am astounded at it's f=role in the war. I, myself find fascination with this plant as it grows heartily up in the mountains here.
Beautiful photographs too!

Spadoman said...

I'm not far from you here in Wisconsin. In fact, I'll be headed up to the UP Monday for a couple of days. (Might have to eat a pasty or two). We've been having the same weather for days now. In the 80's, sunny. It is dry and we need rain.
I love the milkweed. I also learned some new facts. That is very cool. I have eaten the pods many times. I was a guide at an Historic Site and we'd do living history. Cooking up native plants was part of the routine. I liked them as food.
Your photos are fantastic. I love the close-ups. Very nice job.
Thanks for the wonderful post today.


Lisa's RetroStyle said...

Wow...who knew!? Not me...thanks so much for sharing all that great information!! And to think I thought they were glorious just because of their fuzzy innards :) Oh...and beautiful photos!!

HOOTIN' ANNI said...

I can't help myself...I feel like a 'kid again' viewing your special photos [that last one just blew me away] ---reason I feel like a kid, I remember capturing these and getting them to float in the air for the longest time by the wind...what a fond memory.

THE RAVEN-and its shadow

Magical Mystical Teacher said...

Ah, no new photo this week. Never mind, here's a new poetic greeting for you:

(With apologies to William Blake)

Shadow, shadow lurking dark
In a corner of the park,
What immortal eye can see
Your transcendent symmetry?

© 2010 by Magical Mystical Teacher

Shadowy Little Pool

mississippi artist said...

Love the photo and all the information. Milkweed is one of my favorite wildflowers.