As white as milk, as soft as silk,
And hundreds close together;
They sail away on an autumn day when windy is the weather.
We’ve all seen milkweed “fairies” floating past us on an autumn day, but have you ever looked inside the pod from which those “fairies” came? It’s a pretty amazing place! Milkweed plants grow along roadways, in fields, along fencerows — anyplace there’s plenty of sun. Milkweeds have beautiful pink flowers which are a favorite nectar-gathering source for many insects — most notably the Monarch Butterfly.
After the blossoms have faded, a long green seed pod forms which is visited by several insects searching for food. The Milkweed Bugs (both nymphs and adults) feed on the seeds of the milkweed plant.
As the seed pod ripens, it turns a brownish-gray color. If you look inside, you’ll find all the little milkweed seeds attached to their plumes. They’re all attached to a central core, facing in one direction, and look almost like a pine cone with a white tail.
Each milkweed seed is an akene, which simply means one seed with a tight envelope about it. When the wind catches the its plume, each akene goes sailing to a new location — sometimes very far away from the parent plant. And if the milkweed akene lands in the water it’s no problem at all — the rim of the akene is like a life preserver which allows the seed to float until it reaches its destination.
How do you think the Milkweed got its name? Is it because cows who eat milkweed give sweet milk or because its flowers are white? No, it’s because of the milky substance that leaks out when the plant’s stem is broken or gashed. This milky substance is like liquid rubber and when it hardens is so gummy it can seal the wound from which it came. In fact, the Shoshone tribe collected the plant’s “milk” and made chewing gum of it! (PLEASE DO NOT TRY THIS YOURSELF! MILKWEED “MILK” CONTAINS POISONS!) Native Americans also used it in poultices to draw out poison or infection from wounds.
One more very cool thing about milkweeds — how they are pollinated. The flowers are uniquely adapted for insect pollination, having waxy pollen in tiny wishbone-shaped structures which hook onto an insect’s leg but come off when transferred to the flower of a different plant. Here’s an amazing photo from a great nature blog, Nadia’s Backyard, in which you can actually see the tiny “wishbone” attached to a bee’s leg. You can read the whole post here: http://nadiasyard.com/our-native-plants/milkweed-common-asclepias-syriaca-uncommon-versatility/
On our excursions, we always try to take time to record our observations.
Some choose to sketch while others may paint what they’ve seen.
Still others prefer to keep a written record of their findings.
And then there are the poets among us! At our very first class, one of the students asked if he could record his observations in poetry. I answered that not only could he do so, but if he did I would do a dance of joy! So Alex shared a short poem which ended, “……and now Mrs. Hissong has to dance!” And so I did — right there in the meadow! Here are his observations on the milkweed:
Gaze upon the Monarch’s chrysalis. Behold. Admire its colors. The Jade flecks and the Gold.
Watch the caterpillar change being, bursting out of the chrysalis and taking wing.
this new creature, this butterfly unfolding his wings and flying high,
his glamorous suit of orange and black warning predators not to attack,
flying up north on this incredible migration then going to Mexico on vacation.