orange milkweed beetles
on warty gray pods bursting
with tufted brown seeds
Milkweeds typically grow six to seven feet tall, but they are much shorter this year because of the drought. The plant has a deep root system so it can handle droughts quite well, though some of them did not produce any seed pods and the plants show more insect damage than usual. The orange beetles with black spots congregating on the warty pods are one of many insects that feed on milkweeds. Some eat the leaves and others, like these, pierce the pod to feed on the seeds. Milkweed beetles use the toxins contained in the plants as a chemical defense and their bright coloration advertises their inedibility. Despite the drought and insect damage, the pods are bursting with hundreds of brown seeds, each attached to a silken tuft for distribution by wind. That is, if it can escape getting caught in the bracts of goldenrod growing all around.
Farmers are not fond of milkweeds. The sticky, hard-to-remove plant can be a nuisance in grain fields. But during World War II, the lowly Common Milkweed, Asclepias speciosa, played an important role as a military commodity. In the days before synthetics, life preservers were stuffed with kapok, the seed floss from the silk-cotton tree, Ceiba pentandra, which grows on the islands of the Philippines and Indonesia. During the 1940s, the Japanese fleet captured Java and the Philippines, and the Allies lost their source of kapok. An ideal local substitute turned out to be milkweed floss. The silken tuft attached to each seed is a hollow, wax-coated, flexible fiber six times lighter than wool. A pound and half of milkweed floss would keep a 150-pound sailor afloat for 10 hours. Sailors fondly called these life vests "Mae Wests," a reference to one of their favorite pinup girls.
During the war years, milkweed pods were collected by farmers, church groups, civic clubs and school children. Botanists around the country helped coordinate the collection and shipping of the pods to a processing plant in Petoskey, Michigan. During 1944 and 1945, more than 25 million pounds of wild-collected milkweed pods, enough to fill 700 freight train cars, were collected. The company ended up producing over two million pounds of floss before the war ended, in cotton-sized bales that weighed a scant 200 pounds.
When the war ended, the resumption of cheap, imported kapok ended the demand for milkweed floss, but interest in milkweed never completely died out. In 1989 Natural Fibers Corp. of Ogallala, Nebraska, began manufacturing hypoallergenic fill for pillows. In 2005 the company received a shipment of dried pods grown on five acres near Macomb, Illinois, by the Western Illinois Agricultural Field Lab. Harvested with a snap bean picker, the milkweeds produced 700 to 900 pounds per acre of floss.
Milkweed, sometimes considered a nuisance weed, turns out to be a war hero and an ideal crop for the small farmer.