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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Late autumn

I’m several weeks behind on posting these photos of the garden. Most of these photos were taken October 20 and 25.

The last turtlehead held out until the 20th:

a tall spike of green seedheads, with one pink flower sticking out the top

The new native false indigo turned yellow:

eight stems in the sunlight facing downward somewhat like an open umbrella, each with up to 20 yellow oval leaves

So did the whorled milkweed:

narrow stem with narrow yellow leaves, hard to distinguish against a backdrop of maple leaves on the ground

Lots of pretty goldenrods:

one goldenrod stem with white seeds in focus in the front, with several more out-of-focus behind

A gathering of large milkweed bugs on bee balm:

six black-and-orange bugs with their heads together in a circle off-center on the right of the seedhead

Butterfly weed seed pods popped open:

a cluster of more than a dozen skinny, brown pods with many white seed fluff balls all around

Culver’s root:

three levels of leaf whorls, yellow and starting to curl

Stiff goldenrod:

unsymmetrical fluffy seeds on one stem

Beautiful red stems of giant purple hyssop:

one short stem with lots of lime-green leaves in front, with dozens of tall, skinny red stems throughout the background

The spiderwort cultivar resprouting:

about two dozen very short leaf clusters

Hepatica leaves visible, though I didn’t see flowers reblooming like many other people did:

two hepatica leaves poking up out of tree leaf litter

A squash, unexpectedly growing in the flower garden:

short green vine with one yellow flower blooming and two buds

Part of a paper wasp nest, probably carried in by wind:

small gray section of the outer layer of a nest

Milkweed fluff stuck on bee balm:

one seed barely visible through all the fluff, perched on the right side of a seedhead

September surprises

Every autumn I seem to find a surprise or two in the yard, usually spring flowers that should be long-gone. Four years ago it was an iris. I’ve also found late-blooming snowdrop anemone more than once.

This afternoon, while checking up on the status of the yard, I spotted this single wood violet.

one purple violet in the grass and creeping charlie

The vegetable garden is also a good spot to find late bloomers, usually plants that just didn’t quite get enough time to finish before the first frost. But today I spotted beans that are making their first appearance of the year. There are two plants, each completely tangled up in thistles. (When they didn’t appear on time, I didn’t bother weeding the garden.) Strange time to be starting!

two bean flowers, the background nearly all poky thistles

Not quite the end for the rudbeckia

The large section of black-eyed susans has finished blooming and is going to seed.

more than two dozen dark-brown seedheads, with only a few shriveled petals remaining

But just when I thought it was the end for these flowers, a somewhat hidden section popped up a few feet away.

closeup of one bright yellow flower with a tall brown cone, with six more flowers blurred in a fairly straight line in the background

They are a welcome sight as the garden is starting to fade.

Lingering autumn

A month ago, the Twin Cities was under a frost advisory for two nights, and I panicked and picked all of the tomatoes.

purple tomato with a green bottom

There was a very light frost, barely even noticeable, and I learned my lesson to leave the tomatoes on the vine and just cover them until the first hard frost.

blue bowl full of tomatoes of varied sizes, shapes, and colors, mostly green

Except that the next week there was a hard frost advisory, and it still didn’t freeze. It’s 72 degrees on November 5, and I just heard that the Twin Cities has now set a record for the longest growing season ever. Things in my garden just keep on growing.

broccoli

large broccoli head

raspberries

one raspberry flower and a dozen green berries

cabbage, which we waited maybe one day too long to harvest and now a critter is eating it

round cabbage from above, with the left half peeled back and chewed

The leaves are starting to turn.

wild geranium

one mostly orange leaf

strawberries

two sets of three red leaves, standing above a lot of green leaves

joe-pye weed

yellowed leaves that are starting to turn brown

purple giant hyssop

a tall stem of curled, deep purple leaves

bee balm

more than a dozen seed heads above yellow, green, and pink leaves

But some flowers are still budding and blooming.

dahlia

a bright pink flower with more petals open on the right side

black-eyed susans

one yellow flower, four stems with single buds, and one stem with four buds

calendula

bright orange flower with the petals in the very center not unfolded yet

autumn joy sedum

four stems of deep purple flowers

goldenrod

short yellow stalk

turtlehead, covered in dew instead of frost

short stalk with two pink flowers at the top

yellow coneflowers

cluster of nine stems with buds

and more yellow coneflowers growing in an unusual spot: the side of the planter

two small green plants on the side of a gray stucco wall

2016 monarch recap

Remember back in late June when I whined that there were no monarchs in my yet? The very first monarch I saw was this tattered female in mid-July:

butterfly with wings spread and a chunk taken out of its lower wings, climbing on a purple flower stalk

I also saw a few others, like this one two days later that tried and tried to get the unopened joe-pye weed to work before giving up and flying off to the fully open purple coneflower

monarch standing on the center of a flower, its wings folded closed

and this gorgeous male two weeks later that spent more than an hour in the garden, splitting time between the now-open joe-pye weed and the cup plant

butterfly with its wings stretched wide and the flower in the background, viewed from above

zoomed-in photo of a small orange butterfly from the side, on a yellow flower

and I saw evidence of caterpillars

the underside of a milkweed leaf with a tiny crescent-shaped hole in the lower left and a small circle hole in the middle

but until late September, I never saw even one caterpillar in my yard. After last summer’s excitement of fostering 13 caterpillars over two generations, this was disheartening, especially after bad news about the freak March snowstorm that killed many monarchs in their overwintering habitat in Mexico.

But I tried to stay positive with news from real friends and internet friends about monarch and caterpillar sightings in the area, even though I was seeing fewer butterflies than last year. The reports seemed to be more numerous as the migration generation was growing.

right-side view of a butterfly with wings closed, climbing on joe-pye weed buds

As the season was winding down, I had a blast at Ney Nature Center in Henderson, “hunting” monarchs at sunrise to tag them for their journey to Mexico. There were far fewer sleeping in the trees than the staff anticipated – in fact, we only saw one (and it got away). I then spent many hours walking through the prairie and saw quite a few monarchs

butterfly in a large clump of light-purple asters, with other flower seedheads nearby

and my first-ever viceroys! Such a convincing monarch mimic. This butterfly is much smaller than a monarch, though that’s not obvious unless comparing them side-by-side. The biggest visual difference is that viceroys have a black line through their lower wings, while monarchs do not.

viceroy butterfly with its wings unfolded, viewed from above

In the end, I caught five, though two escaped, so I tagged three.

two butterflies inside a mesh monarch cage

fingers holding a monarch's wings closed, with a small sticker tag on the lower wing

And then – on the first day of autumn – I found a caterpillar in my front yard, moments away from beginning its transformation. I brought it inside, where it created its chrysalis. It stayed that way for two weeks, to the point where I was getting worried that the process had failed. But then, the green darkened to show wings forming inside.

a hand holding a chrysalis with the top still green, viewed from the side with one wing somewhat visible

The butterfly emerged the next day, but I wasn’t home until the evening and so I decided to keep him inside overnight. Then next afternoon he was so antsy to get outside that he climbed out of the (nonsecure) mesh cage (really, a laundry container without a top). Fortunately, I had anticipated this and covered it with a towel, so he didn’t escape. But the release day was chilly – barely 50 degrees even though it was sunny – and I wondered if he felt tricked when I took him outside; he was suddenly in no hurry to move.

butterfly sitting on the top of a white mesh laundry hamper

After I let him climb onto my finger, he flew right up to a tree, like all of last year’s monarchs did, but this one perched in the shade. I knew he was not going to warm up there, so when he was still there an hour later, I climbed up a stepstool and took him down to find a better spot.

monarch hanging from a leaf of a birch tree, viewed from the right side

The backyard was somehow much warmer, so he rested on my finger for a few minutes while his wings warmed up, and then away he flew.

butterfly with wings unfolded, resting on my outstretched finger

I’m thrilled to find out that our common milkweed still attracted monarchs late in the season, when it didn’t look so good anymore. This year we added three other types of milkweed as small plants in the backyard garden, and hopefully 2017 will be the year the swamp milkweed seeds take off, too. The more variety we can provide for summer-long habitat, the better.