The Superior Express -

Common local weed used in WWII to make lifejackets


October 14, 2021

The October 4 issue of this newspaper contained a special section with information about the undesirable weeds which are commonly found in this area. While weeds may have objectionable traits, weeds also have positive features.

Farmers hate henbit because it comes on early in the spring and saps the moisture their crop will need. But forget about the moisture loss and enjoy the appearance of a field blanketed in purple flowers.

In the spring, dandelions can give a yard a beautiful golden yellow color.

Wild roses bloom along the edges of limestone roads where you would think it impossible for anything to grow.

Musk thistle has an attractive purple flower. Bindweed can choke out most all other plants but the objectionable weed has a dainty white flower.

Morning glories were once planted as flowers.

Because of their beauty, salt cedars grew in the medians of the three avenues Superior once had.

If you have ever tried to pull a milk weed plant, you know about the nasty sap that coated your hands. Cattle won't eat the plant and that is good for if consumed in large amounts, it is poisonous.

But the milk weed has a number of positive features.

The United States Department of Agriculture reports common milkweed is a member of the Asclepiadaceae (milkweed) family. It is one of about 115 species that occur in the Americas. Most species are tropical or arid land species. The genus name, Asclepias, commemorates Asklepios, the Greek god of medicine. Some of the milkweed species have a history of medicinal use including common milkweed (wart removal and lung diseases), and butterfly weed, A. tuberosa (also known as pleurisy root, used for pleurisy and other lung disease). The specific epithet, syriaca, means 'of Syria' in reference to Linnaeus's mistaken belief it was from Syria. It is a widespread and somewhat weedy species known from most of the eastern United States and the eastern most prairie states as well as southern Canada from New Brunswick to Saskatchewan.

It is frequently found in fence rows, on roadsides, in fields, and in prairies and pastures. Given the opportunity, it will establish in gardens and even thin lawns. It is tolerant of light shade, but generally is a full sun species.

This milkweed grows to about 5 feet tall, usually occurring in clusters of stout stems. It has rhizomes and quickly forms colonies. Leaves are 6 to 8 inches long and 2 to 3.6 inches wide. They are somewhat thick with a prominent midrib beneath. The upper surface is light to dark green while the lower surface is lighter, almost white at times.

Broken leaves and stems exude a milky latex. Flowers are borne in nearly spherical clusters (umbels) at the top of the plant, usually with 2 to 5 clusters per plant. Each flower is about three-quarters of an inch long and 0.4 inches wide. Flowers are greenish-pink to rosy pink to purplish-pink and strongly and sweetly scented.

The pods are considered to be fruits and are about

4 inches long, inflated and covered in little finger-like projections. They are green initially, turning brown as they mature. They split open revealing 50 to 100 seeds each with a white, fluffy coma or parachute that allows wind dispersal.

Common milkweed is nature's mega food market for insects. More than 450 insects are known to feed on some portion of the plant. Numerous insects are attracted to the nectar-laden flowers and it is not at all uncommon to see flies, beetles, ants, bees, wasps and butterflies on the flowers at the same time. Occasionally hummingbirds will try, unsuccessfully, to extract nectar. Its sap, leaves and flowers also provide food. In the northeast and midwest, it is among the most important food plants for monarch caterpillars.

Other common feeders are the colorful (red with black dots) red milkweed beetle, the milkweed tussock caterpillar and the large and small red and black milkweed bugs. The latter two are particularly destructive as both the adults and nymphs are seed predators. They can destroy 80 to 90 percent of a colony's seed crop.

The red (or orange-red) and black coloration of most of these insects is known as aposematic coloration; that is, the colors advertise the fact that the organism is not good to eat.

Sam Brockhaus joins his mother, not pictured, in letting the seeds of milk weed fly through the air. The furry white looking weed seed can be found in bunches in the grader ditches this time of year along the Webber road. Milk weed is needed by the Monarch butterfly for their survival. Sam has recently moved to the area and will be joining the freshman class at Superior High School. His brother, Robert, was a member of the Superior High School Class of 2021.

Milkweeds contain various levels of cardiac glycoside compounds which render the plants toxic to most insects and animals. For some insects, the cardiac glycosides become a defense. They can store them in their tissue which renders them inedible or toxic to other animals. Monarch butterflies use this defense and birds leave them and the caterpillars alone. What the birds do not know is that northern monarchs feeding on common milkweed accumulate relatively little of the toxic compounds and probably would be edible. The more southern butterflies accumulate large amounts of the compounds from other milkweed species and are in fact toxic. Monarchs can be helped by encouraging existing patches and planting new ones. The plant grows readily from seed and spreads quickly by deep rhizomes. Because common milkweed can be weedy and difficult to remove, care should be used to establish the plant only in places where spread can be tolerated.

Milk weed can be commercially raised for the fluff which is used for things like pillow and life jacket stuffing. During WWII more than 1.2 million life jackets were stuffed with milkweed fluff. It can also be used to soak up spilled crude oil while repelling water.


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