A common sight here in the fall: milkweed pods, dried out and bursting open. The little seeds inside prepare to take flight, their silky parachutes opening so they ride the wind to their new homes.
There are many species of milkweed. North Dakota alone is home to 10 of them. This one, Common Milkweed, is the most common. Its scientific name is Asclepias syriaca. There are 9 Lakota names for different species of milkweed, but according to Linda Black Elk, this one is pȟanúŋpala waȟčáȟča.
Milkweed plants can increase their numbers in two ways. They can reproduce vegetatively, sending out new rhizomes within their colony and forming new plants. But the seeds play an important role, too: these wind-buffeted parachutes are an important way for them to travel to new places, and establish new colonies.
Have you ever wondered how many seeds are contained in a single milkweed pod? According to this article, the average is 226. But the odds of success are not great for any wild seed: they must land on ground that is suitable for germination, avoid getting eaten by a predator as a seed or seedling, and survive to produce the next generation of seeds. Statistically, not many of them will do that, so it’s important for them to produce a lot of seeds.
Humans most commonly use other parts of the milkweed plant – roots, shoots, and flowers – for medicine and food. Dried, aged milkweed stems make great cordage. But humans have a few uses for the seedpods, too.
The silk attached to the seeds is not great for spinning or cordage-making – I’ve tried it. The fibers are too short and too brittle. But I have heard of it being used as stuffing for cushions and pillows.
Earlier in the season, while the seedpods are still green, they can be edible. At Linda Black Elk’s Sitting Bull College ethnobotany class end-of-term potlucks, stuffed, deep-fried milkweed pods were a regular feature. They have to be harvested early enough that the seedpods have not become too fibrous to eat. But I would harvest mindfully, since it’s a trade-off – for any milkweed pod you harvest, that’s 226 fewer seeds that have a chance to emerge into the world.
I would be remiss in discussing milkweed without at least a mention of monarch butterflies. Milkweed is the one and only food that monarch caterpillars eat. Their survival is currently under threat, and the Fish and Wildlife Services has recommended protecting them under the Endangered Species Act. Maintaining a healthy milkweed population is essential for the survival of monarch butterflies. So it is always a hopeful sign to see these seedpods bursting open in the fall, and their windblown seeds parachuting off to new homes.