By Ranger Steve Mueller
Many of us remember the movie where giant pods took over human bodies while people slept. Now when I talk about pod people, I refer to people that collect milkweed pods to gather seeds to take over patches of the yard to help monarch butterflies. Suggested methods of collecting and spreading seeds will help milkweed success. Following my recent monarch article, I received questions about when and how to best plant milkweeds. Now is the time to be a pod person and collect pods.
Milkweed seeds need a cold period to improve germination. Keep seeds dry when cold treating during winter to prevent mold or bacteria from causing destruction. Milkweeds are herbaceous perennials that grow from rootstocks in the spring so seeds are not their only way to maintain a population. The seeds have a parachute called a coma for dispersal. The coma or plume spreads seeds when blown by the wind.
To plant seeds it is best to remove the comas so they do not disperse from where you want them. The easiest way to remove them is by collecting mature pods that are ready to open. Squeeze the pod to open. If pods open easily, they are mature and ready for harvest. Seeds will be brown rather than pale or green.
After the pod is opened grab the center support stalk at the pointed end and hold it tightly. Use your thumb to remove seeds from the coma. Store dry seeds where they will receive prolonged cold. In spring it is helpful to further vernalize seeds by placing seeds between damp paper towels for a few cold weeks. They can be kept in plastic bags during this cold treatment. An alternate method is to refrigerate dry seeds and place them in warm water for 24 hours to improve germination rates. Store seeds dry to protect from mold and bacteria and keep them secure from insects and mice.
Milkweeds grow best in sandy (light) soils rather than clay (heavy) soils. Their nature niche is adapted for disturbed soils in full sun where competition from existing plants is few or lacking. Plant the seeds in spring while weather is still cool because high summer temperatures may prevent germination. The plants produce large numbers of seeds because few survive to grow. The method described helps improve seeds germination and plant survival rates as well as providing greater opportunity for monarch survival. Monarch caterpillars feed on the leaves and the adults of many kinds of butterflies find the nectar from milkweed flowers among the best nature has to offer.
Enjoy smelling the rich fragrance when milkweed flowers perfume the yard better than most wildflowers.
The following You Tube video shows the milkweed seed collecting process:
Natural history questions or topic suggestions can be directed to Ranger Steve (Mueller) at the firstname.lastname@example.org Ody Brook, 13010 Northland Dr, Cedar Springs, MI 49319-8433.