Aunt Bett was grumbling because the war had taken all our milkweed plants; I was grumbling about climbing a steep ledge to get up the mountain so early in the morning. It's a wonder we gathered any milkweed at all that day.
The year might have been 1951. It was spring and the early morning dew made the climb a bit slicker than usual. It was then that she told me the story about milkweed and WW II.
Aunt Bett was my mother's aunt; she was well known for her herbal remedies in our little hollow in the Appalachian mountains. Doctors were few and far between during that time, so most people depended on medicinal plants when they were sick. A lot of the plants she used grew near her house but she preferred those wildflowers that grew higher up on the mountains. She claimed they were cleaner, purer, touched only by Mother Nature. She also claimed me as her helper and I didn't mind a bit; I loved climbing those mountains. I found I also loved the wildflowers.
It was spring and I was on my first search for milkweed. The plants were young then and so was I, too young to understand much about what she was doing. She had learned her methods from her own ancestors, descendants of the Cherokees who had once roamed those same mountains. It was the sap of the milkweed that she wanted in the spring. I remember she told me it was good for warts and other skin problems.
We came then to the steep ledge. I took one look at that ledge and immediately decided I wanted no part of it. It was a huge rocky cliff, so big I could walk underneath it, much like a cave. I was almost afraid to tell Aunt Bett, afraid she'd think me unworthy of being her helper, but I sure didn't think I could climb that cliff.
"I can't climb that rock, Aunt Bett, it goes straight up!"
"We won't climb up it, little one, we'll climb around it. Here, I'll hold your hand."
She did and when we finally made our way around to the top we found level ground warmed by the sun. On that sunny level patch of ground grew the milkweed. I asked her why we had to climb so high to find it; she told me about its use during World War II.
Milkweed, Asclepias syriaca, was once cultivated for the silky down from its giant seed pods. The down was used to stuff beds and pillows and during WW II, it was used to stuff life jackets. While Aunt Bett collected the milkweed plant for its sap that spring day, she told me about its seed pods and how they were used during the war.
Milkweed seeds have white, wispy hairs referred to as "floss." When the seed pod cracks open, the seeds are distributed by the winds. It's an ingenious evolutionary adaptation employed also by the dandelion; children puff the round seed heads while we cringe knowing how many more dandelions will soon be growing. And the cottonwood tree, its fuzzy white seeds are transported now right to my air conditioning unit where they stick till they turn the entire unit white with their fluff. What a genius is Mother Nature, assuring survival of the species. And how aggravating it is to clean that white fluff off my air unit.
During the war, Aunt Bett told me, our military needed life jackets, many of them, very quickly. The government knew the milkweed floss would provide bouyancy, so they paid 15 cents for each feed sack that was filled with seed pods of the milkweed. People walked along roads, railroads and fence rows collecting milkweed pods and then selling them to the government. Even school children became involved in the gathering. I remember wishing that I had been old enough to gather them, too, but the war was over by then and patches of milkweed were few and far between because of it. I made Aunt Bett promise to take me back to the milkweed ledge in the fall so I could collect some seed pods of my own.
"The ledge is still going to be too high for you to climb, little one."
"I know but you'll still be holding my hand."
And so she promised.
I know much more now than I knew then about this interesting plant. It's an American native and it was the Native Americans who discovered its medicinal properties, teaching them to the first English settlers in Virginia. At that time they used the sap for skin problems and some tribes used extractions from the boiled roots for conditions such as asthma and other respiratory diseases.
It grows in many parts of our country; it thrives in any sunny, open space from meadows to city lots, along roadways, on top of a ledge in the mountains and in cultivated fields. It's a perennial with a stout unbranched stem that can grow to 5 or 6 feet. The leaves are large and leathery and grow opposite on the stem, smooth on top and downy underneath. It usually has clusters of fragrant purply blooms in summer which are followed in fall by fat grayish green seed pods. The pods dry in late fall and become hardened and brown protecting the flossy seeds inside.
Milkweed roots are toxic; there were boiling methods used to reduce toxicity even in those early years. Unless you are an experienced herbalist, I really don't recommend that you use the milkweed for remedies.
There are two things I learned from Aunt Bett during those mountain journeys in search of milkweed, both of them make it one of my favorite wildflowers. Milkweed, Asclepias, is the host plant for Monarch butterflies and the dried seed pods of the milkweed can make the most wonderful Christmas decorations.
The Monarch butterfly is sometimes called the "milkweed butterfly" because its larvae eat the plant. In fact, milkweed is the only thing the larvae can eat. If you love butterflies, you'll love having milkweed in your butterfly garden.
If you like crafts, then take a look at the floral design made by Larry Rettig for his home in the Amana Colonies in Iowa. See the red poinsettia? It's actually made from the dried seed pod of the milkweed, sprayed red, arranged in the shape of the flower and artfully displayed on his table.
I learned many things from Aunt Bett, the little old lady who held my hand whenever I thought I couldn't climb a mountain. Most of those lessons I've remembered. It was her deep love of nature that she shared with me, it was her good common sense that made me realize I could make do with what nature gave me. And even now, more than a half century later, when I come to a mountain that I think I can't climb, I can hear her voice whispering, "Yes you can, I'll hold your hand."
Most of the time, that's all we need, just knowing somebody is holding our hand.
The last image is by courtesy of Larry Rettig; all others are by courtesy of wikipedia.org and used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License.
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