Too Much of a Good Thing

If this were a good fibre for spinning, I’d be sitting on a gold mine.

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But this is a seed pod of the common milkweed, Asclepias syriaca, and although the floss is lustrous and soft it is really too short and brittle for spinning. The dark side of this brilliant bunch of seeds is an active agenda for world domination, and my back field is living proof.

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Individually, the July blooms are attractive and a good source of nectar for visiting insects.  But each one of those tiny florets turns into an airborne seed, and one common milkweed plant soon turns into this:

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And on; and on; and eventually, even a native plant enthusiast like myself begins to think, uh-oh, where is this going to end? In my mind the milkweed was safely relegated to a certain area where it could flourish and provide reliable habitat for any monarch butterflies who make it this far north on their migration. (Monarchs only lay eggs on milkweed species. Their larva are among the few creatures that can stomach the bitter taste of milkweed leaves, and they eat a lot. ) The milkweed is clearly disregarding my plan.

These old fields have been plowed and cropped and hayed and then left to their own devices. The natural diversity of plant material is slowly returning, but in the meantime a vigorous plant like A. syriaca, which has earned a place on many a “noxious weed” list, takes full advantage of any open spaces.  Robust milkweed plants have popped up in all corners of the property, including the area designated for future sheep pasture.

In an active pasture, many less desirable plants can be controlled through grazing. The problem with milkweed is that it is poisonous to livestock. Its bitter taste also makes it unpalatable. The theory is that as long as there is ample other food available, sheep won’t eat the milkweed, but I sure don’t want to test that theory. Plus if no one is eating it, the milkweed might just keep flourishing until it out competes all the other plants in the pasture anyway.

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My entomologist friends assure me that the insect in the close-up above is not part of the solution. I had hoped it was about to devour the seeds, but it is a tiny predatory beetle looking for some even smaller insect to eat.  So next year I will experiment with pulling plants out of a certain area by hand. Butterfly lovers, be assured this will be done early in the season before the monarchs arrive to lay their eggs, and there will still be plenty of milkweed plants for them to choose from. Besides this abundant species, there is a scattering of the much more sedate Swamp Milkweed, Asclepius incarnata, in some of the wetter areas. This is a lovely plant, readily available in garden centres now and highly recommended for home gardens. Occasionally I have found specimens of the Dwarf Milkweed, A. ovalfolia, as well. It’s too small to be much use to a voracious monarch caterpillar, though!

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2 thoughts on “Too Much of a Good Thing

  1. All that lovely Milkweed! I would encourage you to play with retting the plant stocks in the early fall and experimenting with processing them for fibre… there is a lovely silky thread in the plant stock- and it was traditionally used as a spinning fibre and cordage fibre- apparently the Navajo people spun it with other fibres including linen. It doesn’t like our wet mild coastal winters- and I tried really hard to get some plants going last year, a few grew well- and then I played with processing methods but didn’t get very far- I didn’t have enough to use and no instant results- but there is research work being done in Quebec and eastern states I think for fibre use- so a bit of internet digging mind find a trail to follow for some industrious spinner living on the prairies…!

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    1. Thanks Sharon for this informative comment. That would be a great project. I certainly have an abundance of the common milkweed and it would be so satisfying to put it to good use. I can also mail you a bushel or so if you want!

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