Milkweed – An Unknown Hero During World War II

seed pod small

In researching Asclepias for my blog posts regarding the three milkweeds we have here on the property, I came upon a fascinating story which is appropriate to relate during our national holiday when we are all feeling more patriotic than usual.

As the above picture illustrates, milkweeds are one of those plants which make a pouch for their seeds and provide them with a little flossy parachute.  When the seeds mature the pouch breaks up and the little seeds fly out into the vicinity of the plant propelled by the wind – some of them falling far away, indeed.

But, of course the milkweeds are not the only plants clever enough to send their seeds out with the wind.  The kapok tree does also and it was the fluff of the kapok seeds that was used to stuff life preservers because of it buoyancy properties. However, by 1944 during World War II the Japanese controlled the area where the kapok trees grew.  What to do?  A substitute needed to be found. The natural choice was the common milkweed ( Asclepias syraca ), as the floss of its seed had similar properties. But for the government to plant the milkweed for seed production would have taken three years as it takes that long for plants to produce seed.

What was proposed was that there could be a call to the public to go out and gather seeds.  Since most adults were busy fighting the war, children were invited to join the effort. They were provided with sacks in which to gather the seed pods. Two sacks would make enough floss to manufacture a life vest. Hundreds and thousands of sacks were gathered to be sent to factories which made the flotation devices used by American soldiers during World War II.

Of course, the seeds gathered were not of our little trio of milkweeds here in Nantahala, but of one of its cousins!  No matter, it is a wonderful story for the 4th of July.

Click on the links below for some interesting articles regarding this piece of American history!

Kids gathered milkweed pods for WWII effort

The heroic milkweed

Not-so-Common Milkweed

The weed that helped win World War II

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