Laura Dean Bennett
West Virginia poet laureate Louise McNeil titled her beloved memoir about growing up in Pocahontas County, “The Milkweed Ladies.”
The title came from a passage in the book in which she described how she played with milkweed floss as a child.
“In the late summer, when the long, delicate green milkweed pods were full, we would strip off the outer pods and carefully take out the silky white insides. These were our ‘milkweed ladies,’ as pure and delicate as soft white dove-birds… We would invite them to ‘tea,’ a crowded three of them sitting so ladylike on our moss sofa… We would tell them in high-pitched Southern voices, about the Ladies’ Aid meetings and the strawberry festival down at the church; and one day I made up a rhyme:
“Milkweed ladies so fair and fine,
Won’t you have a sip of my columbine?
Or a thimble of thimbleberry wine?”
When I was young, probably much like Louise McNeill and many other Appalachian children, I enjoyed playing with what we called “milkweed fluff.”
Besides being fun to play with, milkweed pods were a source of food.
I was taught that a bit of observation and a little effort would yield a bountiful harvest of wild food which would vary according to the season.
There would be greens like dandelions and locust tree blossoms in the springtime, berries as the weather warmed and elderberries and crabapples in the fall.
In the summertime, taking care to avoid their treacherous leaves, we always picked milkweed.
Mom would add the young, tender milkweed pods to salads, or slice them up and fry them, much as one would eat okra.
In fact, as I recall, they taste a little bit like okra, too.
Harvesting milkweed pods for the table should be done when the pods are full, but at their smallest size and the seeds inside are all still pure white.
Older, larger pods are tough, don’t have the delicate flavor of the young ones and, in certain varieties, may even be poisonous, like their leaves, which should not be eaten.
I especially enjoyed picking milkweed pods – whether they were young and tender for eating or older and tougher for use in my many craft projects.
There was always something magical about milkweed.
Maybe it was that the pods could be turned into so many beautiful things.
Opened up and split in two, each half of a pod could be made into anything – a tiny fairy canoe, a little cradle for a woodland baby doll or a painted and glittery Christmas tree ornament.
And as a bonus, the pods contain what we called the fluff – the milkweed floss – that could be plucked out of the ripe pods in the fall and used in our many fall and winter craft projects.
When I got older, I learned that the real magic of milkweed lay in the fact that it is essential to the survival of monarch butterflies. Monarchs lay their eggs in milkweed and its leaves are the only food source for monarch caterpillars.
Without milkweed, there would be no monarch butterfly, which was adopted as West Virginia’s state butterfly in 1995.
That would be a terrible loss.
Due to the use of pesticides and the eradication of milkweed in many urban and suburban areas, the monarch butterfly is becoming increasingly rare in many parts of the United States.
But here in Pocahontas County, I am happy to report that milkweed and monarch butterflies are still a common sight.
There are about a hundred different species of milkweed in North America. It’s easy to identify with its straight stems, horn-shaped pods and oval leaves.
Common milkweed grows all over the Eastern U.S. and Canada – with the exception of Florida – and west to the Rocky Mountains.
It grows in a variety of soils and seems to actually favor poor soil.
It prefers full sun and will grow to five or six feet tall. In the spring and early summer, it’s crowned with pink flowers that butterflies and hummingbirds seek out for the nectar.
This time of year, this perennial wildflower can be found in almost any field and alongside every road.
It looks like a vertical banner of oval leaves in alternating pastel green and lemon yellow and topped with a horn-shaped pod.
In late summer, milkweed stems produce their distinctive green seed pods. Later, in the fall, the leaves are almost all yellow and the pods dry, darken to brown and finally burst with their white angel-hair like fluff.
The uses for milkweed pods are limited only by one’s imagination.
They can be painted and dyed or used in their natural state to make jewelry, bowls, vases, jewelry, or, as we did at my house, turned into beautiful Christmas ornaments.
With a little hot glue, paint and florist wire, the pods can be transformed into whimsical shapes- flower blossoms, birds or butterflies. They also make lovely wreaths and garlands.
Native Americans used milkweed to make medicine to treat rheumatic pains, rashes and injuries to the skin, fevers and indigestion.
They also used its fibers to make rope and its floss as a fire starter.
Early settlers gave it the name pleurisy root for its medicinal value in treating coughs and pleurisy.
During World War II, milkweed floss was collected for use by the armed forces in making 1.2 million life vests.
Milkweed has been studied for use in paper making, manufacturing textiles and lubricants and as a substitute for fossil fuels and rubber.
These days, milkweed floss is used commercially as a soft but durable filler for pillows, comforters and jackets.
Gardeners who wish to encourage monarch butterflies to visit their property should be aware that milkweed leaves are toxic to humans, pets and livestock.
The leaves are sticky with a substance that can cause a rash in people with an allergy to latex.
And it is an aggressive spreader which can be difficult to rein in once established.
If you want to attract monarch butterflies and decide to grow milkweed, there are many varieties from which to choose.
Consider planting it in a container where it will be out of the reach of children, pets and livestock and won’t endeavor to take over your landscape.
You can be sure your efforts will be met with delight by monarch butterflies and other pollinators who will eagerly lap up the nectar of the sweet milkweed blossoms.