The seed pods of a wild, native perennial herb, collected in great quantity by us boys during World War II, led me to believe we were helping to save some sailors’ lives. The task was easy and important work especially when I had an older brother, Ivan, serving on a U.S. Navy patrol craft in the South Pacific.
I, too, can more easily dream of the light-winged Monarch Butterflies as they head for their winter roosts in the mountains of central Mexico, who as larvae ate nothing but the milkweed leaves in the backyard. Many Baltimore Orioles cradled their young in silvery gray nests made entirely of the long strong, silky strands of milkweed stem fibers.
Fall would not be fall without the thousands of shimmering skeins of silk dotting the back meadow under the lull of the Indian Summer sun, the plant so important to Monarch Butterflies and birds as well as certain children!
As often as we children blew the feathery seeds of milkweeds, also called silkweeds, into the autumn breezes, perhaps on one of our famous and adventurous “long-cuts” home from school, little did we know that in a few years we’d be gathering burlap sacks full of them to help in the war effort.
By this time you are probably wondering how this very small amount could possibly support the weight of a full-grown person. Obviously it is related to the great amount of air inside the fibers, as well as that trapped between them, that does the trick.
Description: Grows up to 1.5m tall, though height can vary considerably. Most often found growing in full sun or partial shade in moist or damp soils, such as along lakes, rivers, swamps, or drainage ditches. Does not grow in areas that are typically hot and dry. Unlike common milkweed, the central stem may branch. Leaves can be up to 15cm in length (but are often shorter), are much narrower (1-4cm width) than common milkweed, and taper to a sharper point. Stems and leaves release a milky-white sap when broken. Plant blooms for approximately 4 weeks in mid- to late summer. Round clusters of light pink flowers grow near top of plant. The flower colours may vary from near white to purplish, and are pleasant smelling. Seed pods have a smooth exterior texture (unlike common milkweed) and ripen in fall to reveal small seeds with white silk attachments common to all milkweeds. From a distance, Joe Pye weed may be mistaken in late summer for swamp milkweed (see description below).
Found in BC, AB, SK, MB
Swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata)
Found in SK, MB, ON, QC, NB, NS, PE
Other milkweed species are occasionally encountered in Canada, typically ones that are more common in the US. Some may have escaped from home gardens. If observed, record as “other” and enter a note and photo.
Description: Grows up to 1m in height but is often smaller. Most often found in dry, sunny locations with sandy or gravelly soil. Has hairy stems and narrow, oval leaves that taper to a point, 5–12 cm long and 2–3 cm wide. Easily distinguished from other milkweed species by its large clusters of bright orange (or orangey-yellow) flowers that bloom from late spring to early fall. Develops pods of small seeds with silk attachments common to all milkweeds, but sap is clear, not milky white as in other species.