Harvesting Milkweed

Harvesting Milkweed

Earlier this week I saw a post from the US Fish and WildLife Service about collecting milkweed seeds. Since I have done this before, both as an individual, and a student group facilitator, I believe it is an important thing to do and this is the time of year to do it! The video is interesting but it ended up being about collecting milkweed seeds on a large scale; the home gardener would not have the equipment necessary to free the seeds from the silk, as is shown in the USFWS video. They do acknowledge this through giving some brief tips on what the home gardener interested in milkweed seed saving can do.

In the interest of providing yet another view, one that has worked for me since I started collecting seeds in 2014, I thought I would post the steps I take to collect and preserve milkweed seeds.

  1. Access your milkweed patch. I have three such patches in my yard – one common milkweed, one swamp milkweed, and one of rose milkweed. Make sure you have permission to pick the seed pods if the plants are not on your property.
  2.  Make sure the pods are dried. You can check this by looking at their color, which should be brown, not green, and whether or not they have started to split open. The pods that have already split open will easily come free of their seeds and silk, at even the gentlest touch, but are showing you they are getting ready for dispersal. Harvesting pods that have been drying on the stems of the plant will decrease the chance of mold forming, once they are stored.
  3. Pick the entire pod off of the stem and put it in a large container. I reuse ice cream and cookie dough buckets for this purpose.  Vent the tops of the container by poking several holes through the top.
  4. Place the container of seed pods in a cool, dark place for the winter. I just keep them in my garage on a shelf.
  5. In the spring, you can remove the pods, place the top back on the container and simply shake to separate the silk from the seed.

In recent presentations, I have been asking children why they think the silk is attached to the seed. Unfortunately, most do not know.  It is there to help the seed travel and find a new place to settle and germinate. If you watch any milkweed patch in mid-to-late fall, on a windy day, you can see this in action! Or, you can watch my YouTube video on it.

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Overwintering the seeds, either by letting them disperse naturally, or by collecting and storing in a cold place provides a needed stratification period for milkweed. Some plant seeds, including the milkweed species of plants, need a cold stratification period of several weeks to ready them to germinate in the spring. Your refrigerator can be used for this if you are not going to plant until spring. If you buy seeds, make sure they have received this cold stratification period.

Finally, even after you plant your milkweed seeds, you will need to be patient.

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Sometimes, it takes several years for the seeds to germinate. But, once they do, you will quickly have a growing milkweed patch of your own, from which you can collect seeds.

Sharing seeds is the fun part! Make sure you only share seeds that are disease free (from a disease free patch and that are native to your area of the country). From the seeds I have saved, an entire section of fourth grade (3 classes) planted in the spring of 2016, neighbors and friends were given seeds, and 180 first graders were given seeds this fall.

A demonstration prop I made containing milkweed seeds and silk, travels with me to my presentations on monarchs and milkweed. I call it my excitement jar.  It has proved to be a great teaching tool to show students the beauty and potential of milkweed seeds.

Lastly, in the fall of 2014 my garden club students and I harvested seed pods from the butterfly garden at school. Monarch Watch had put out a call for milkweed seeds. This was a great service learning project in which we only had to pick the pods and send them to an organization that would then separate the silk and disseminate the seeds to areas in need of milkweed.  Check their website to see if they are doing that again and how you can help. Monarch Watch Website.

The scary part of the milkweed topic is that a group of researchers have determined that over 1 billion, 1.6 billion additonal NEW stems, to be exact, of this plant are needed to sustain the monarch population and keep it from extinction. One point six BILLION additonal stems! Yikes! They have called for All Hands on Deck!  The research is presented in this IOPScience article publisheed earlier this year. Be prepared to read some dire consequences about the monarch and milkweed.

If you plant milkweed, whether from seed you saved, obtained from a friend, bought, or received free, you are helping this effort. Thank you for being a needed participant in saving the monarch!

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Monarch Update Yields Hope

Monarch Update Yields Hope

Today, is the Monarch Monitoring Blitz hosted by Monarch Joint Venture. I came across a posting on social media that reminded me of this citizen science event.  Having raised monarchs for 14 years, I definitely feel the need to participate in the reporting activities of this weekend.

Just to set the stage, this summer I did not see a monarch until after the July 4th weekend. I had found one caterpillar toward the end of June that told me Monarchs had visited, but until that holiday weekend, I hadn’t seen my orange and black friends float by on a breeze. To date, I have only been able to release one butterfly.  I can tell, without the use of any statistics, the numbers are down.

But, yesterday, after seeing a Monarch fly by three or four times, or possibly three or four monarchs fly by, I saw the post by The University of Minnesota’s Monarch Lab Monitoring Project. Essentially, it is asking “regular” citizens or lay-people, or non-scientists to go out this weekend and look for Monarch eggs or larvae (caterpillars).

So, since I consider myself to be a monarch conservationist and have participated in many citizen science activities regarding monarchs and milkweed, I headed outside after dinner to check out my milkweed patches. This really is not an unusual activity for me, I have been checking my milkweed for the last 14 summers! Usually, I have raised and released over 15 monarchs by this time in the summer. As I have already noted, it has been slow. I did not harbor much hope of finding eggs or caterpillars. Yet, I did have that adult monarch (or those adult monarchs) flying around my deck before dinner.

I thought about waiting to look. After all, I had just looked two days ago and found nothing but aging milkweed plants. And, the monitoring blitz wasn’t starting until today. But, I went ahead and read what information they were seeking from community observers (citizen scientists) such as myself and decided to look.

Within five minutes I was back in the house, proudly showing my teens a monarch egg I had found. Two minutes later, I had found four more. And ten minutes after that, another five! Ten monarch eggs! All found on common milkweed leaves in the patch facing South next to my garage – in an area of about 225 square feet, encompassing about 32 plants. I was ecstatic!

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For one thing, I have never been good at finding eggs. But, these had been super easy to find!  All but one were on the underside of tender, newly sprouted milkweed leaves. I made note of this observation. One leaf had 3 eggs on it. Each of the other eggs were laid upon single leaves – kind of what is expected. One egg was found laid on the top side of the leaf – somewhat unusual. And one egg was so hard to determine if it was an egg because it was near a margin of a leaf that had already been chewed, dried, and was curled on itself. Luckily, I have a great pair of magnifying glasses, which I use to do fine work on my jewelry,  and broke those out to inspect not only this egg but all of them!

Ten eggs – the night before the monitoring blitz started! Ten eggs – a great number with which to work as it will be easy to determine morbidity and mortality statistics, without causing any mathematical difficulties. Ten eggs – all photographed. Ten eggs – checked and rechecked this morning. Ten eggs – hopefully, soon to be te caterpillars!

I feel fortunate to be able to contribute this information to the scientists working hard to ensure the survival of the monarch species.  I have hope.