Every other Friday on Morning Edition, Outside/In host Sam Evans-Brown tackles a question from a listener.
Panther from New Hampshire asks: "I was wondering if milkweed was related to cotton, and if it’s ever been used for material like clothing?"
Editor's Note: This episode of Ask Sam first aired in 2019.
First of all, I’m not sure if Panther is a nom de plume, nom de guerre or just a regular old nom, but what a name, sir!
For those who have seen milkweed this is a perfectly reasonable question. The pods have that little fluff of fibers at the top, which look a lot like the little fluff that we use to make cotton fabric.
However, the seeds the two plants disperse is slightly different. Milkweed seeds are on very smooth, silky fibers that blow out of the pod and typically separate as they disperse. Cotton bolls fall off as a clump with 20 or 30 seeds inside, which blow around like a tumbleweed, and the boll itself serves as a little slug of fertilizer that helps the newly germinated seeds.
And indeed, while the fibers of both plants both white and fluffy, milkweed just doesn’t have what it takes to be made into pants.
“The fibers aren’t long enough, and they’re not strong enough, and they’re slippery and they become brittle,” Chip elaborates, “And they just don’t have the qualities that one needs to weave with them or meld them in some way to make clothing.”
There are some uses for a very fluffy, silky and soft plant fibers. There are a few companies and Etsy “makers” who are selling pillows and comforters stuffed with milkweed fluff, and it is supposedly very cozy and hypoallergenic. (But rather pricey.)
Also, surprisingly, the fibers absorb a ton of oil, and while it doesn’t seem to have had dramatic success, a company in Canada did announce back in 2014 they would sell a product for cleaning up small oil spills that was made using the fibers.
But my favorite fact is that in WWII, because there was a shortage of the material that had traditionally been used to make life-vests, “there was a large campaign in the second World War to have school children collect milkweed pods from all over the northern states,” says Chip. “Those pods were harvested, the coma or fibers out of the pods were collected and they were used to create these life vests for aviators.”
Oh, By The Way
Let’s not forget that milkweed is also incredibly important for monarch butterflies: it’s the only plant the butterflies lay their eggs on, the only plant the caterpillars eat, and eating it makes them poisonous to vertabrates (and foul taste) which is their primary protection from predators.
And yes, anecdotally, both Chip and I have been hearing that this was a year with a lot of monarch caterpillars and butterflies here in New England. Chip got these reports after posting a video in the spring forecasting a small population in the Northeast.
“I posted something that I expected a small population,” he says, “and then I heard from a lot of people saying, ‘You’re wrong! You’re wrong! You’re wrong! You’re wrong!”
Once again, even with a species as popular and well observed as the Monarch butterfly, we need more data if we want to make predictions of their population dynamics, so get out there citizen scientists!
Sam Evans-Brown, is host of NHPR’s Outside/In which you can subscribe to where-ever you get your podcasts. If you’d like to submit a question you can record it as a voice memo on your smartphone and send it to firstname.lastname@example.org, OR call the hotline, 1-844-GO-OTTER, OR submit it here.