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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