Harvesting milkweed seeds

Late this summer I decided to participate in a million milkweed challenge. A local environmental restoration organization asked volunteers to collect seeds from common milkweed, whorled milkweed, and butterfly weed, which will be used to grow plants and also used in seed mixes. Milkweed is vitally important because it’s the only thing that monarch caterpillars eat, and its flowers also attract other pollinators.

At one point in June, just one small section of our front yard looked like this, so in late autumn there were plenty of common milkweed pods to be found:

about 20 tightly packed common milkweed plants, all budding and blooming

Here are some

four brown milkweed pods pointing in three directions off one stem

and here are some

three brown milkweed pods, one pointing to the left and two stacked and pointing to the right

…though I decided to just leave this pod.

one green milkweed pod covered with mostly adult large milkweed bugs and a few larvae

I didn’t collect every last pod, especially leaving the ones that had already opened so the seeds were starting to fly, so there is plenty of seed left over in the yard to regenerate next year. I still ended up with a table full of ripe pods:

a round wire table, viewed from above, covered with about 175 milkweed pods

I decided to remove the seeds myself, rather than turn in pods, and that meant I had a lot of work to do. Since the collection process had taken place over several weeks, by the time I began working, not all the pods were in good shape anymore. Some had already opened and started to separate

closeup of several of the pods on the table, four of which are open to show brown seeds, and two that have seeds that have started to fly away

and some of the pods had gotten a little damp due to weather, so I found a few pods like this:

closeup of one open milkweed pod with white lines and three green spots within the brown seeds

Those squiggly lines aren’t worms, they are sprouts!

a similar pod from the side, taken apart with two seeds removed below to show that they have sprouted green growth

(I discarded pods like this and only included fresh seeds.)

To remove the seeds, I held on tightly to the “fluff” end of the pod, then scraped downward across the seeds to loosen them into the container.

a thumb pressing down on the end of a seed pod, above a container with seeds

This pod is going smoothly.

the same pod with a section of seeds removed to show white beneath

This one ended perfectly: all the seeds came off easily.

a hand holding a different pod, all the seeds removed so only the white strands are showing, neatly folded

But sometimes, no matter how tightly I held on, the seeds didn’t cooperate — and with not a lot of patience for picking up seeds one by one, when that happened, I set that pod, fluff, and seed aside.

a thumb holding a mess of fluff with seeds still attached

Wayward seeds still attached to their “parachutes” floated all over

a dozen white fluff balls scattered among fallen tree leaves on the ground

two milkweed seeds caught on zinnias

and once I realized just how many seeds were falling through the wire table down to the patio stones, I put on a tablecloth and caught quite a few that were missing the container.

another photo of tree leaves on the ground, but moved over to see patio stones covered in milkweed seeds

About three hours and 159 usable pods later, I had one gelato container filled to the brim:

side view of a clear plastic container completely full of brown seeds

And what I’m left with now is a bag half-full of fluff.

looking down into a brown paper bag with lots of milkweed fluff in the bottom, with more caught on the edges

I recently heard that a Canadian company is starting to make jackets using this for stuffing instead of down or synthetics. Maybe I could go into business! (Though at about one coat or pillow a year, it wouldn’t be a very lucrative business.) The fluff is super-soft.

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