After I wrote about milkweed fairies, I received the following story in an e-mail. Although I had read about this practice, I never knew of anyone who actually did it. Now I do.
Kapok trees produce pods with seeds surrounded by a fluffy, yellowish fiber that is water resistant. Kapok seed “fairies” have characteristics similar to milkweed fairies. Kapok was used to fill flotation devices. During WWII the United States source of kapok was cut off by the war in the Pacific. The US government called upon civilians to collect milkweed pods to turn in for processing. During the WWII, we collected fluffy milkweed “seeds” for processing as a substitute for kapok, used to pad life jackets for our troops on ships and to fill flying jackets. I remember collecting these pods as a very small child with my family. See, we used natural products for flotation devices. Being “green” is not new!
According to Wikipedia, Americans collected 5500 tons of milkweed floss during World War II.
Today, milkweed is being used by a Nebraska firm, Natural Fibers Corporation, to make a product called Hypodown. Made from four parts goose down to one part milkweed floss, the product is used to fill jackets, comforters, and pillows. Milkweed floss has been found to have excellent insulating properties and to be hypoallergenic as well.
Milkweed has a long and complex history. It has been used to prepare a medicinal tea to treat various ailments and the sap has been made into topical preparations. Parts of the plant have been eaten in certain cultures. It is said the Germans attempted to extract the latex for use as a rubber replacement, and Native American peoples used the stalks to make string and rope. And, of course, the monarch butterfly is completely dependent on the plant for its survival.
Unfortunately, milkweed is known as a tenacious perennial weed in cultivated croplands. Herbicides and the use of genetically-modified crops are wiping out milkweed in many parts of North America to the severe detriment of the monarch butterfly and other pollinators.
By encouraging commercial uses of milkweed—especially Asclepias syriaca or common milkweed—we can better care for that segment of our native pollinator population that is dependent on it.