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Pyro-Milkweed

At first, I wanted to grow butterfly milkweed mainly for its glowing orange blooms.

For years I tried to establish orange butterfly milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa) in my garden.

But.. something always seemed to go wrong.

Part of my problem is that this milkweed is a sun-loving roadside plant and my garden has lots of shade.

Eventually I found  out that the object of my desire would grow just fine in a prairie that was annually burned.  So – I began to situate my plants in my praire plot and in the sunny bee meadow.  Since then all has been well.

But I wanted more plants and I wanted them to be from my locale.

I had tried buying and planting seed with poor results.  This was probably because the seed were old. Then, of course, I had the dilemma of not knowing where they originated.

It's best to collect milkweed seed before the brown seed with silky tails erupt from the pod and float away on the breeze.

So I decided to break the code and start collecting and growing plants from fresh local seed.

I collect when the follicle or seedpod is mature in size and just beginning to turn tan and crack open.  The seed inside should be brown – not green or white.  This takes persistence – usually several visits to check on ripeness are required.  Since the first flush of flowers in early summer rarely mature into seed, I do most of my collecting in late spring and early fall.

After collecting, I store the pods at room temperature or in the fridge in a paper bag until I can process them.  They will become moldy in plastic.

I isolate the seed from their silky/fluffy “tails”  prior to planting.  If the pod is barely cracked open, I firmly grasp it to hold the seed inside and gradually pick the fluff out – a very tedious process.

Lately though – I’ve been using a trick I learned from my friend Jan Midgley.  As Jan says in her book,  Native Plant Propagation:  “… Place the seed with tails attached but fluffed out on an old metal tray.  In a place with no wind, toss a lighted match on the seeds and poof, the fluff is gone.  This treatment may even improve germination…”

I’ve been using this trick to clean my seed for a couple of years now.  Since I am something of a pyromaniac, the process always brings a smile to my face.

So – the cleaning is over in a flash as you can see in the You Tube video below.

The seed can then be stored in the fridge for planting next spring.  Or if it is early enough in the season,  I soak the seed overnight, roll it in a moist paper towel and stratify it in the refrigerator for four to six weeks before planting.

This may seem like a lot of work but, planting this and other milkweeds is crucial if we want to save the monarch butterflies.  Monarch caterpillars feed solely on milkweeds and a few milkweed relatives.

All sorts of butterflies like this spicebush swallowtail sip nectar from milkweed blooms. The plant's leaves are essential food for monarch caterpillars.

The Mississippi Native Plant Society is now collecting milkweed pods to send to Monarch Watch.  The organization is stockpiling seed to be used to restore milkweed stands.  The Monarch Watch seedbank apparently contains little or no seed from Mississippi and some other Deep South states.  For more information about the Bring Back the Monarchs Campaign, click here.

But back to my original quandry.  All of my issues with growing butterfly milkweed have been in part solved by fire.

A quick burst of flame removes the fluffy seed tails and cleans the seed.

Since the parent plants will thrive after a  late winter prairie burn, they can be planted in the few sunny areas in my landscape.

It’s a beautiful thing!

 

 

 

 

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