Posted by: Jim E | September 21, 2011

Milkweed…WWII…My Backyard…”Mae Wests”…And Fencerows…

When I was writing about milkweed in my last post…there were a couple of things that I didn’t add…so will add them today…when we lived in Minnesota…just north of Minneapolis…we weren’t in the “country” as such…some would say we were but…really we were in a neighborhood…it certainly was not the city…and our lots were fairly large…ours was about 3/4 of an acre…so houses were not close…and in back of our house there were no houses…it was open field when we first moved there in 1971…but over the years, field grass gave way to small trees and those trees grew, of course…but still no houses…so our lot ran up to that field…and I allowed that fencerow to grow as it wanted…and in that tall grass (or weeds if you like) grew milkweed…and I protected the milkweed…and taught our boys about the mysteries of milkweed…such a lowly plant…growing in fields, along roads and highways across the country…but lets see…mysteries, huh???…yup…

When I was a kid, we had vacant lots all around us…and we played and romped for miles around where we lived…and we ran into milkweed…so I have investigated them since I was a child…most people know that Monarch butterflies could not live without the milkweed…it is the only plant on which they will lay their eggs…you may say, “Naw, that can’t be true.”…trust me on this one, it’s true…Monarchs do not lay their eggs any other place than on milkweed…it’s why Monarchs only start their spring migration until after milkweed it thriving…I mentioned that on my previous post…but you may have just dismissed it out of hand…saying, “This guy is wacky.”…but it is true…and that is not the only mystery of milkweed…you may say, “Man, there is more.”…”Yes, Johnny, if you are good…I will tell you another story.”…

The plant gets its name from a milk-like substance that comes out of any part of the plant…the leaf, or stem, or pod…if you break or remove a part of the milkweed…it “bleeds milk”…it is a latex substance, if you rub it between your fingers it becomes a sticky, rubbery…as a kid I remember “trying” it, tasting it…its not very good…nor good for you…most of the milkweed is toxic to humans…and most animals…but not to the Monarch butterfly…(or the milkweed bug, and a couple of other bugs, but we will not go there)…well, we will not go there except to say this…you may wonder, if the plant is toxic how does the Monarch (or its larvae) live on the plant…”Glad you asked Johnny”…when the Monarch lays its eggs underneath the leaf of the Milkweed plant and they hatch (in about two days)…the larvae, or caterpillar finds itself on a rather large “salad bar”…and it merrily eats its way around the plant…(it’s why the plant needs to be “thriving” before a Monarch will come along and lay its eggs)…”This is fun, right???”…when the larvae eats to a certain size (about two weeks) it attaches itself and encases itself, to the plant, upside down, in the silk it makes…in about two more weeks in this pupa/chrysalis stage, (a metamorphosis occurs)…then it breaks out into a butterfly…well, after some “drying time” and pumping up its wings…you get the picture…

Now hang on to your seats…there is more to come…because the Monarch has eaten of the toxic milkweed plant since its birth…and now it has within itself this same toxin…and makes the Monarch, one butterfly that birds and other animals avoid (well, they may try it once)…that’s why they are such a bright orange…(like the milkweed bug, etc.)…they are so bright so birds will remember who they are, and avoid them, “like the plague” (as my Mom use to say)…that, also, is one of the protections for the Viceroy butterfly…it looks very much like a Monarch…and so birds avoid them too, just to make sure!!!…(this is good for you…so hang on…this is good stuff…but the real good stuff comes later)… 

I mentioned in passing “the pod”…yes, milkweed has “pods”…I used to love to pick off the pods…and of course love to watch the milk coming out of the milkweed…check its rubbery qualities and then open up the pod…inside the pod are hundreds of seeds…all attached to a silk or floss that is so white and so silky you can’t believe it…and we would throw them into the air…and watch them land like tiny parachutes…(now, I’m not sure of this…but I believe in my heart, that God must have known there would be little kids who would spread the seed of the milkweed, even before He had a chance to use the natural way)…I mean it is a fun deal…and the feel of the silk and seeing them fly through the air was a wonderful experience for a kid…Hey, I may go out and try it now…it’s about the right time of year…and we would help seed some more milkweed for next year…(I told you, good stuff, huh???…but more to come…it gets better)…

So where does WWII come in here, you ask…well, ask or not…I’m going to tell you something you did not know…so when you go out today or this weekend to find milkweed and see if this is all so…you will know something about the milkweed that no one else around you knows…when the Japanese fleet fanned out across the Pacific and captured Java and the Philippines…the Dutch East Indies (today Indonesia)…they cut off the United States main supply of kapok floss, which came from the kapok tree…and like the common milkweed, kapok seeds are carried aloft by strands of cotton like fiber…and the value of kapok and also milkweed floss was its buoyancy…but to produce that much milkweed fiber it would take months or years…but during WWII there were all kinds of drives…scrap, rubber…there was rationing…but there would be another kind of drive…read on…

So it did not seem so far fetched to have milkweed pods collected as well…throughout the country people were asked to collect and ship milkweed pods and send them to a processing plant in Petoskey, Michigan…the pods were collected by farmers, church groups, civic clubs, schools, anyone who was willing to assist…the picture is of a class of Illinois school kids, their teacher and 109 bags of milkweed pods, hanging up to dry…it turned out that milkweed floss is a hollow, wax-coated, flexible fiber six times lighter than wool and ideally suited as a substitute for kapok in life vests…the sailors called these life vests “Mae Wests”…a reference to the busty physique of one of their favorite wartime pinup girls…a pound and a half of milkweed floss would keep a 150 pound sailor afloat for 10 hours…during 1944 and 1945, more than 25 million pounds of wild-collected milkweed pods…enough to fill 700 freight train cars, were collected throughout North America…the company ended up producing over two million pounds of floss before the war ended, bailing it in cotton-sized bales that weighed a scant 200 pounds…at the end of the war the cheaper kapok was again available…so the demand ended…though there is still interest today for the floss…for stuffing pillows for people who are allergic to goose down…

So as you see a Monarch butterfly, as I did today…(it almost flew in the car window, on its way to Mexico)…but as you see one…think of the long journey it’s on…and think of the milkweed plant…and all that you learned today…it was journey…I loved it…to see the intricacies of God’s natural world…and we can be a part of it…and being thankful for it…and remember the history of the milkweed…its part of our history…

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