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The Humble Milkweed
July 09, 2018

I hope you enjoyed this past week.

Birthday celebrations for Both The United States of America, and Canada celebrated birthdays this past week.

It was a bit of a challenge with the very oppressive heat and humidity (and still no rain around here).

However, we managed.

The water bill is going to be something next time around.

Pictured is a cucumber I picked on Friday.

The cuke itself isn't unusual, how it grew was rather neat.

The cucumber managed to grow along the horizontal board on the tomato tower.

Look and you will see one of the vines curly-Q, grab a hold and support the vine, things, wrapped as nice as can be around the pickle to keep it horizontal. 

Along the way are a couple pictures of a Northern flicker, a young Tom turkey that stopped by for a visit.

At the bottom you will see a couple pictures of the biggest Garter snake I have ever seen.

She is a good meter long, probably a bit more (females are always larger).

The maximum size I believe for this species.

There goes so many of the baby toadlets that call my yard home.

I'm like you, snakes are creepy, but they serve a purpose.

Monarch Butterflies are finally arriving here in South west Michigan.

Below, one is pictured on a Swamp Milkweed in my yard.

Today's topic is the 'Humble Milkweed'.

Read it all, some stuff might surprise you.


The Humble Milkweed:

(This image was taken Saturday, on a Swamp Milkweed.)

Milkweed plants are most often associated with monarch butterflies, and their caterpillars.

But other insects are attracted to milkweeds as well.

The 'Red milkweed beetle' and the 'Giant milkweed bug' are both brilliantly colored.

The Milkweed beetle is red with black spots on its back, and long, black antennae.

Milkweed bugs, are different creatures altogether.

They are an orange-red with black markings.

Numerous aphids, and aphid predators like ladybug beetles and some ant species also reap benefits from these native plants.

All sorts of pollinators are attracted to the flowers.

Before the rampant use of 'Round Up', Common Milkweed was ubiquitous in the Eastern Two-Thirds of The United States, and parts of Canada.

The Monarch Butterfly flourished.

As recent as 1990, close to One Billion, that is 1,000,000,000 Monarchs graced out gardens, ditches, and country side.

Close to 85% of the Monarch population is gone, with recent counts estimated to be somewhere around 150,000,000.

Loss of habitat and food, will do that to wildlife.

Plant milkweeds my friend.

(Monarch Larvae.)

Humans and Milkweeds:

Human use of milkweeds runs the gamut from food, to fiber, and medicine.

This may come as a surprise to many of you who have always been told to beware of the toxic sap.

But long before Europeans arrived in North America, indigenous people knew how to use milkweed, (despite, and sometimes because of the sap).

Milkweed sap, which looks and feels much like 'Elmer's Glue', contains chemical compounds called cardiac glycosides.

These are the plant's main line of defense against predators.

The toxicity varies through the life of the plant, so knowing when to pick it is important.

Knowing the dosage and application are also key.

Milkweed was a multipurpose medicinal plant in the pharmacy and first-aid of Native Americans.

It is recorded that American Indians used milkweed  salve for scrofulous swelling, and rashes.

As a tea or soup it was taken as a diarrhea medicine, by mothers to produce milk, for snow and other forms of blindness, sore throats, bronchial and pulmonary problems, pleurisy, rheumatism, stomachaches, intestinal pains, to expel tapeworms, treat colic, as a contraceptive, and to cure snakebite. It was used as a wash on sore muscles."

Pioneer doctors, learning from native people, called this plant "pleurisy root" 

You can still purchase the product by this name.

(Butterfly Weed in my yard.)

As food, milkweed may not have been the featured entree, but it was added to other dishes.

Pottawatomie used milkweed flowers and buds to thicken meat soups and to impart a very pleasing flavor to the dish.

Milkweed was widely used for fiber.

Its stems were separated into strips and used for bow strings, thread, fishing line, and belts.

(Here is something we did as kids.)

A natural Food, juvenile Milkweed stalks can be boiled and served like asparagus.

An old man neighbor taught us this when I was about 10 or so.

The tender leaves can also be boiled and sprinkled with vinegar for bitter greens that is loaded with vitamins.

Both of these are improved with the addition of melted butter.

Even the immature seedpods are edible in stir-fry (never tried this).

There are many such natural wild foods in the fields available for eating.

(Northern Flicker, they are a beautiful bird.)

Ralph Waldo Emerson  wrote,

“What is a weed? A plant whose virtues have not been discovered.”

Farmers and gardeners often encounter milkweed as an unwelcome visitor whose roots and seeds dominate their landscape.

The well educated gardener knows differently.

But milkweed has provided often-unrecognized benefits to society during times of both war and peace.

Milkweed  (Asclepias species), is named for its characteristic milky sap or latex.

More than 100 species of milkweed call North America home.         

I grow Butterfly weed  (Asclepias tuberosa) and Swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata).

Two very well behaved plants that stay put, many other milkweeds have root runners that infest an area.

Common Milkweed is good for naturalizing a field, or ditch.                                                                                           

Common milkweed  (Asclepias syriaca) is concentrated east of the Rockies. It grows in fields, along roadways, and beside railway tracks.

(Swamp Milkweed in my yard.)

Late in World War II, the common milkweed was often the only thing that kept a downed aviator or soaking-wet sailor from slipping beneath the waves. The plant’s floss was used as the all-important filler for flotation devices. 

The northwest part of Michigan's Lower Peninsula, particularly the area around Petoskey, became the country’s picking and processing center for milkweed floss.

By the time the war ended, an army of citizens, including school children, led by a visionary doctor had helped keep America’s servicemen safe from harm.

I digress.

In the early 20th century, the typical filler for life preservers was a material called “kapok.” A cottony fiber extracted from the pods of the Ceiba tree, kapok was cultivated in the rain forests of Asia.

America’s primary source for this material was the Dutch East Indies (present-day Indonesia).

In 1937, came Japan’s invasion of China, which initiated World War II in the Pacific.

By the time the U.S. entered the war four years later, access to Asian kapok had been effectively cut off.

Despite its poor reputation as a weed, the common milkweed played a vital role locally and throughout the nation during World War II when it became a strategic resource gathered by schoolchildren.

A national campaign to collect wild milkweed pods was inaugurated under the direction of the Milkweed Floss Division of the War Hemp Industries, agent for the Commodity Credit Corporation of the United States, Department of Agriculture. 

The effort was promoted and coordinated by the state department of education.

Children throughout the nation were encouraged to gather milkweed pods with such slogans as “Two Bags Save One Life”, (since two bags of pods were required to fill one life vest).

The collected pods were shipped to the milkweed processing and seed extraction plant of the Milkweed Floss Corporation of America, built in 1943 at Petoskey, Michigan.

The processing plant was built and sat where the Emmet County Fairgrounds now sit, just east of the city of Petoskey.

People familiar with the region know exactly where this is.

(I love the Petoskey region.)

The pods would be run over a hot air dryer for a few minutes, then removed from the bags and put through a machine that first takes off the pods, then picks the seeds from the floss.

The floss is pressed into bales and shipped to the manufacturers of life saving garments into which it is quilted.”

Wartime pamphlets encouraged children to gather milkweed.

Truly a nation that banned together to aid in the war effort.

A brochure produced by the Soil Conservation Service for War Hemp Industries urged:

“School children of America! .......  Help save your father’s, brothers’, and neighbors’ lives by collecting milkweed pods.”

Canada and about 29 American states east of the Rockies were involved in the campaign. 

The slogan “Two bags save one life” summed up the main mission.

The floss harvested from two bags of milkweed pods would fill one life jacket.

Milkweed floss was also used to line flight suits. 

It’s been estimated that more than 11 million pounds of milkweed were collected by the end of World War II.

That is a lot of picking and pods.

Milkweed has been a friend to humanity in countless, little-known ways. 

Just think, some of you may be here today because of the 'Humble Milkweed'. 

Well, it is time to fly for now.

Before I go, here is your positive thought for the week.

God Bless.

“A man can fail many times, but he isn't a failure until he begins to blame someone else.”

John Burroughs(1837 - 1921), American naturalist

The first man was a Big Failure.

The first man, caught in the first sin was quick to blame.

"The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit of the tree, and I ate".

Genesis 3:12

Thankfully, we have a God that is kind, and quick to forgive.

"Treat the earth well:

It was not given to you by your parents,

It was loaned to you by your children.

We do not inherit the Earth from our ancestors,

We borrow it from our Children."

Ancient Indian Proverb.

A Blessed week to you .

Your friend indeed,

Ron Patterson

PS. If you enjoy these letters, please forward them to friends, family and co-workers.

Better yet, have them sign up so they can receive their own letters.

Gardening For Wildlife.

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