Monday, October 21, 2013

Harvestime at Tumbledown

Frost predictions. Snow in the forecast. Salt already on the sidewalks in the City! Just another October day here in Minne-snow-tah....

Many folks are putting up storm windows and picking the last of their tomatoes today. But me? I'm drying milkweed seeds.

I picked the pods a week or so ago. And yesterday (a Sunday) I dealt with them proper. It was the perfect day for it, too; rainy and cold. My kitchen was toasty, my house was shadowed. Downstairs the dryer tumbled bluejeans and sheets, upstairs the lovebirds chewed happily in their sleep. And I was at the sink, my fingers flocked with milkweed fluff as I shelled seeds into a bowl.

And it'd have been super-smart of me to be outside at the patio table as I worked, but there was the rain thing, of course. And when you have neighbors like I do -- ones who have manicured lawns and spend fortunes on pesticides and weed control chemicals -- keeping your milkweed fluff to yourself ('in an enclosed area,' in other words) is probably best, as no one enjoys having a complaint issued against them, not to mention a formal visit from the city's Weed Inspector. However, shelling pods indoors poses a special problem: beware the fluff!....

I have lots of milkweed plants in my gardens here at Tumbledown. And friends have shared with me many different varieties of them, too. I have the usual Swamp Milkweed and Showy Milkweed, which grow everywhere here in the Midwest. But I now over-winter some tropical varieties that wouldn't survive our cold temps here. I always think that they'll come in handy someday should our weird new weather patterns prevent a future year's local crops from growing in time for the Monarchs to need them upon their arrival in the spring....

Harvesting pods is a job I wouldn't want for a Job, I don't think. But once a year it's a special pleasure. I'm That Person who enjoys shelling ears of corn and running my thumb along columns of fat peas (maybe you like to do this, too?), and this is similar. It's also a lot like preparing full-blown dandelion blossoms to become Liquid Sunshine (aka dandelion wine). Sticky and messy. But satisfying, too. While I'm knee-deep in it, there's nothing else to do but go away in my head.

On Sunday as worked I thought of past seasons' Monarch butterflies and the people I've talked to about them at Fest. I happily recalled the looks on the faces of both kids and adults alike as they studied my hatchlings and asked me questions.

This Fest season I couldn't believe how many adults found the whole butterfly process gross! One little girl (whose mother was asking me a question about my artwork) was standing near the butterfly tent and eyeing a chrysalis when it began to hatch. She stepped back in absolute open-mouthed awe, trying to draw our attention to what was happening. The whole event took a millisecond, I swear -- then the fat butterfly was out, suspended, its tiny wrinkled wings moist and curled.... "What's wrong with it??," her mother asked, now eyeing the very-unbutterfly-looking creature, and I explained how the latex-like substance that it consumed while eating milkweed as a caterpillar would now flow from its fat abdomen into the veins of its wet, floppy wings, extending them completely before stiffening and hardening, like a plastic. The mom grimaced while the little girl smiled with fascination.

A while later, when the wings had taken on as much fluid as possible, any leftovers were jettisoned in a blurp of Monarch 'afterbirth,' staining the paper towel at the bottom of my butterfly tent. The mother and her daughter were gone now, but a fresh set of adults were sickened and aghast. "How gross!" they complained. Oh well....

Over the seasons I've found that most adults are ooked out by the process, sadly. Not all, but most. However, every kid -- no matter what age -- seems fascinated. To them it's a messy and magickal miracle. Makes sense, right? Life IS messy.

This season I got the bright idea to bring my cache of saved milkweed seeds to Fest. I separated them into tiny Ziploc bags that I doled out to anyone interested. A number of folks took some home for planting. And any leftovers were scattered around the Site after the season had ended and I'd closed up my shop for the year.

Pods waiting to be opened
Have you ever been interested in saving a pod of milkweed for its seeds? You'll get dozens of them from a single pod, and you can scatter them in your own gardens, if you'd like. The Monarchs will love you forever if you do (and I will, too!). Here's what I do:

Collect ripe milkweed pods. You'll know they're ready if you spy a couple that have 'burst' a bit. And you'll want pods that haven't opened completely yet because they'll just be easier to handle. (I usually have to harvest mine way earlier than I'd like, but that's only to keep them from wreaking havoc with my neighbors....) If you're not going to harvest the seeds immediately, keep the pods in a paper bag so they get some air circulation.

Stem-side down; seam is on top
To open a pod, hold it in your hand with the stem away from you, facing down (the pointed end of the pod will be toward you).

Split open the seam. The seeds will be in a cluster at the stem-end of the pod and their fluffy ends will (hopefully) be gathered tightly at the pointed end, kind of like a seed bouquet. The goal is to grasp the bouquet in your fingers so that the seeds stay tightly together and no fluff escapes. Pull this cluster from the pod. It will look kind of like a pinecone.... (Don't forget to shake out any loosened seeds that have collected inside the pod.)
Separate seam to expose seeds and fluff

Holding the fluff-end of the bouquet tightly in the fingers of your left hand, gently 'back-comb' the exposed seeds with a finger of your right hand. If they're stubborn and refuse to fall away from the fluff, go ahead and scrub them between your fingers. You won't get them all, more than likely. (I'm guessing that they didn't separate from the fluff easily because they weren't dry enough.) Collect what you can before dropping the remaining fluffy mess into another paper bag. When the last pod is finished, close up the bag of leftovers to allow them some more Dry Time. As the leftovers age a bit, you can occasionally shake the bag to loosen the seeds from their fluff. Then after a time simply cut off a bottom corner of the bag and pour the seeds out. OR, sometime before winter arrives proper, grab a child and have them help you scatter the leftover fluff and seeds into a nearby field while you both make a bunch of wishes!

'Back-comb' seeds into bowl
It's my understanding that milkweed seeds need the winter season in order to germinate. You can scatter the ones that you've just 'shelled' now before winter. Or you can store and then refrigerate them for a period before sowing them in the spring. Before storing, make sure they're dry! Otherwise they may get moldy. (Mine are currently spread out on a sheet of newspaper.)

Dry completely before storing
And guess what I recently learned about milkweed seeds that I hadn't known before? 'Shocking' seeds that have been refrigerated seems to improve their germination rates! To 'shock' them, simply soak them in warm water for 24 hours before planting. Who knew?

The Pollination Station has all sorts of cool info on how to store and when to plant milkweed seeds. You can also purchase seeds there as well as sponsor a future butterfly and/or caterpillar. Cool beans!

Happy harvesting!

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