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

Bees and turtlehead

I could watch bees crawl in and out of turtlehead flowers all day. Mostly it’s just bumblebees and honeybees that do this, because they’re big enough to open the flowers. And I see more bumblebees than honeybees here.

bumblebee that is almost all the way out of a dark-pink flower, viewing almost straight into the flower's opening

They force their way into the “mouth” of the “turtle” and rustle around inside for quite awhile, then exit and find another flower to repeat the process.

Video of a bumblebee from a few years ago:

Sometimes they need to stop and regroup after they exit, brushing the pollen off their antennae or eyes, I assume.

bumblebee with a small yellow pollen basket, holding on to a light-pink flower with a leg up near its eyes, viewed from the side

This flower has a honeybee inside, barely visible.

looking straight into the 'mouth' of a dark-pink flower, the bee is not distinguishable but the back of the flower is dark

This year, at first, I thought I had noticed a difference – bumblebees climb out backwards, while honeybees turn around and climb out face-first – but then I saw a bumblebee turn around, too. (And the video above shows a bumblebee that turns around, so I had seen that before.) In fact, I don’t seem to have any photos of bumblebees backing out. So much for that theory.

just the head of a bumblebee emerging from a light-pink flower

same bee a fraction of a second later, with its front two legs and its body visible to the thorax

This one is my favorite: looks like it was quite the effort to squeeze out of this blossom.

three light-pink blossoms, with a honeybee emerging from the lower right flower horizontally and tilted, looks like it's pulling itself out with its front two legs

Only a little hint of the insect inside.

one bumblebee leg sticking out of a light-pink blossom

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.

Rudbeckia in the morning, rudbeckia in the evening

Black-eyed susans that are opening look like they’re sleepy and having a hard time waking up.

bright yellow flower just starting to open, the petals somewhat swirled to the right, in bright sunlight

My hair is a bit wild in the morning, too.

another flower farther along, the petals on the left sticking straight up, and the petals on the right starting to fall into place

One last stretch, and then this one will be ready.

closeup on a nearly-open flower with 13 petals flat, while 2 on the left and 5 in the back are sticking up, with several other flowers blurred in the background

At the end of the day, this one looks like it’s ready for sleep.

stem hanging down with a reddish rudbeckia just starting to unfurl

All tucked in for the night. This doesn’t look comfy to me, but what do I know? I’m not a bee.

completely open flower that is just starting to fade, with a long-horned bee holding onto the top of a petal with two legs while its body hangs underneath

Rudbeckia’s visitors

If I were giving out an award for the most social flower of the year, black-eyed susan would win. One fun day, I spent the morning checking and rechecking on them, noticing and admiring the diversity of insects that were attracted to the blossoms. About two-thirds of these photos are from that one day alone.

Bees:

likely a bumblebee on the right side of the center disk, facing downward

metallic green been in the same position

unidentified smaller bee on the left of the center disk, curled and facing downward

possibly a megachile, on top of the center disk, with legs full of orange pollen

Flies:

really big fly with hairs, possibly a tachinid, on top of the center disk

long-legged fly standing out on one of the petals

Flies that look like bees:

bee mimic with a wide abdomen

much smaller bee mimic, or hoverfly, hovering to the left of the center disk

Butterflies:

tattered monarch sitting on the right side of the flower

Eastern tiger swallowtail with wings outstretched, tilted toward the camera, on the right side of the flower

Bees and butterflies:

gray butterfly, possibly a hairstreak, on the left side, and a long-horned bee on the right, their antennae crossing in the middle

Lacewing:

sitting on a petal in the front of the picture, facing downward

Aphids:

a blurred stem with two large red aphids and several smaller red aphids, in front of a black-eyed susan

Beetle:

beetle perpendicular to a tall center disk, with a dark red body and wing shells that blend in with the flower disk

Japanese beetle doing the splits:

beetle on the petals facing up

Leafhopper:

small green insect tucked into the fold where the petal meets the flower's center

I don’t know what this is:

patterned brown insect with long antennae, climbing up a tall center disk

Inchworm:

skinny green caterpillar holding onto a petal with its head hidden behind the center disk

And my favorite find, a camouflaged looper inchworm:

curved brown caterpillar hanging off the right side of the center disk

(More about this one later.)

There was also this gruesome find — one dead bee on a petal, with two dead bees and one dead fly suspended below — but then again, a spider’s gotta eat, too. (I assume that’s what created this scene.)

tall image of a flower with four dead insects, three hanging below the flower but no visible spiderwebs