My house is filled with floating diaphanous white puffs. The car seats are covered with them, they are in my purse and stuck forever on to my black fleece pants. I am harvesting the milkweed pods ripening along the roadsides . . . if harvesting is the word for something that adheres to your clothing and hands and hair as soon as you touch it.
Blowing on the dried, open pods, watching the seeds float away and then getting caught in the wind, veering upward and swooping around, others getting caught on the nearest bush — that is the main reason I gather this wonderful seed, for the pleasure of watching them escaping into the air and blue sky like bubbles or kites — that is their special magic.
The other day a little girl joined me in this wind-planting. (“I’m three,” she said. “And a half,” holding up an extra finger). While Ted and her father were chatting, we had been entertaining each other with two small pieces of silly putty (full of possibilities, when it’s all you’ve got). When this wore thin, I remembered a patch of milkweed right down the road from the lawn where we were sitting, and ran over to get some. It doesn’t take long to learn what to do! She grabbed a handful from the pod I handed her, and turned them loose; it was a windy day and up they went, clean across County Road and into the trees. Some fell right at our feet, and of course stuck on us, and the sculpture all around us on the lawn of the gallery caught a few as well. The seeds in the full pods are tucked in so perfectly, one hates to disturb this symmetry; we began to take them out one by one. I remembered Disney’s film Fantasia from over 50 years ago, and the Nutcracker sequence of the milkweed ballerinas twirling about among the trees and up into the sky — and incidentally, upside down — as ballet skirts — the way Disney’s artists depicted them, skirt side down. We ran out of pods and the game was over; we watched the white dancers floating away.
The common milkweed is also known as the butterfly flower, or silkweed, the latter certainly descriptive of the delicate fiber attached to the seeds. A friend of mine in Connecticut has been planting milkweed for years; I remember how she was worrying over the Monarch butterflies when last we visited. I knew that Monarchs were attracted to the milkweed plant, now I know that is the only thing that can host, feed, and nurture them on their 3,000-mile migration from Canada to Mexico. Milkweed is needed along the entire route or they will not survive. One plant for each butterfly. Just now on the Internet I watched an animated picture of worm-to-chrysalis-to butterfly — which looked about to fly off the screen. Upon emerging from the chrysalis they must wait for some hours and dry their wings before beginning their long flight, feeding on the milkweed plant along the way. It’s hard to imagine a migration of such delicate insects . . . and hummingbirds and wrens and goldfinches all riding the wind currents, for thousands of miles. I haven’t seen many of these Monarchs in the last few years; their numbers have declined drastically — some 100 million fewer than last year I just read, due to habitat loss, which is happening to so many of the creatures on this planet. There is a foundation to help protect the Monarch habitat, places to get free milkweed seeds, and instructions on how to plant, re-pot and transplant. (November is the time). I have just planted several pots full, though they look incongruous as they are tucked into the rich dirt, white skirts and all.
I have a large bandage on my left-hand middle finger, the result of using a dull scissors to cut the stalks of this plant (which, incidentally, exude toxic latex). I can’t type very well. However, I will keep going back to my milkweed fence, until there is a final big wind, which will empty all the pods. I hand them out to the friends I run across (in a plastic bag, so they won’t escape and be wasted in their car). Meanwhile, I have two sacks full and will be like Johnny Appleseed. Probably I shouldn’t say this publicly; I have one friend who calls them invasive. But never mind, it’s too late now, I’ve already blown about a thousand of them across the countryside.
Jeanne Hewett is a fabric artist and freelance writer who lives in Vineyard Haven.