The Magic of Milkweed

Memories connect to current moments in unexpected ways.  This week as I was driving on the rural roads near my house, I noticed the fading colors of the autumn leaves and the fields of milkweed along the side of the road, the pods splitting open to reveal their silky fluff within.   I suddenly remembered the first time I discovered the magic of milkweed.

My sister and I were walking through the fields near our house one Saturday morning in October when we spied among the drying weeds some plants with pods on them.  We opened the pods and discovered the fluffy white fibers inside.  The milky liquid from the leaves was sticky on our fingers.  We pulled out the fluff and scattered it in the wind.  We were children discovering the magic of milkweed for the first time.

Like nearly everything in nature, there is so much more to learn about milkweed beyond a first encounter.  Its name, Asclepias, is from the Greek god of healing and the roots were used as medicine.  The leaves are arranged in a specific pattern.  Each pair of leaves is at right angles to the next pair, so if one pair points east and west, the pair above and below point north and south.    The leaves are the only food of the caterpillar of the monarch butterfly.  The milk is bitter and one drop can make your thumb and fingers cling together like rubber cement.  The blossoms turn into pods with a seam along one side which pops open when the pod becomes ripe and dry.  Inside is a “parachute” of silky fibers, often used by birds for their nests.  The seeds are carried away by the wind to become new plants.

During World War II, the milkweed had some surprising purposes.  The liquid from the leaves and stems was used when there was a scarcity of natural rubber from rubber trees.  The silky fluff from the pods was gathered by children and processed as a substitute for kapok to pad life jackets and flying suits.

I didn’t know any of this as a child.  All I knew was what a miracle it was to walk through the dry fields in October and discover the milkweed growing there.  What a miracle it was to split open the dry pod and pull out the white fluff inside, feel the softness and the lightness of it, and watch as the winds of autumn carried the threads away in the crisp fall air.  Whenever I see milkweed now, when I see the pods partly open, their insides spilling out, I am a child again, innocent of the ways this weed contributed so much to mankind during wartime, innocent of the ways it gives life to the monarch butterfly and soft nesting to birds.  I know only of the miracle before me that can transform the chaos of every day into one moment to treasure.