A seed is a pretty magical thing, in my opinion. It represents potential, possibilities, and hope for the future. Every fall, I think about seeds a lot when I find myself in the garden scouring crispy brown flower blooms to grow next year’s plants. Nature does a wonderful job on its own of spreading plant seeds so the next generation can grow. Some plants, like native Persimmon (Diospyros virginiana), wrap their seeds in a tasty little sugar filled fruit that gets eaten up by coyotes and other hungry critters and deposited sometimes miles away in a pile of scat. Coyotes are a sassy, unashamed bunch who like to leave their droppings right in the middle of the trail, as if to say “Yeah, that’s my poop. What are you gonna do about it? Huh!” You’ll see a thin little pile of scat this time of year, usually containing some kind of squirrel or rabbit fur and a smattering of oblong brown seeds about an inch long that contain a future persimmon tree.
While some plants have evolved to create sweet and tasty fruit around their seeds as a means of spreading their DNA, others rely on more passive methods. Milkweed plants, for instance, devised an ingenious method of seed dispersal using something that is more or less always around in one way or another: the wind. If you’ve ever seen an open milkweed pod on a gusty fall day, you’re likely to see a whimsical show. The seeds are attached to something called “floss”, which acts as a kind of parachute/sail to carry the milkweed seed on the breeze to a destination ranging from mere inches to many miles away. This floss, other than being used for its intended purpose of seed distribution, is actually quite useful.
Back in World War II, school children throughout the Midwest would see signs saying, “Two Bags Save One Life”, and “Don’t Let Our Sailors Sink”. The United States Government called upon the girls and boys of our nation’s heartland to harvest milkweed pods and fill old onion bags full of their floss in order to stuff life jackets for sailors and airmen in the war. These bags were dried and sent via rail and vessel to a former lumber mill in the town of Petosky, Michigan to be processed into fill for life jackets. Children were paid 15 to 20 cents a bag, which required a fair bit of work to fill completely. For many though, the nickels and dimes were not the objective, it was bringing their fellow countrymen home safe and doing their part in whatever way they could.
I thought about those honorable kids who are over eighty years old today as I was picking milkweed pods this past August and September. And although we picked the same pods of the same kinds of plants, I was after something other than the fluffy floss. Every year, volunteers painstakingly count out between twenty and thirty seeds of three different species of milkweed native to our area and fill handmade paper pouches. Some go to the Umstead Coalition to sell during their Native Plant sale, and the remainder are given away to the public outside of the Visitor Center of William B. Umstead State Park during the holiday season. Come December 15 th , in a small wooden box next to the front door of the building, you’ll notice small colorful paper containers of milkweed seeds. They contain Common Milkweed, Swamp Milkweed, and Butterfly Weed. All host plants for the Monarch Butterfly and all beautiful additions to gardens all over North Carolina.
So if you’re in the market for a stocking stuffer for an avid gardener in the family, a first night of Hanukkah gift for a green thumb butterfly lover, or just a simple way to enter the world of flowering native plants for yourself, stop by William B. Umstead later this month to pick up your free milkweed seeds. Please only take one species per person and please please please, only take them if you are sure they’re going to be planted in the early spring. I’d hate to see all that hard work get left in a sock drawer or lost on a shelf in the garage instead of germinating into food for a migrating butterfly next May. If you have any questions on how to plant them, check out this blog from a great non-profit called MonarchWatch. It’ll tell you how to grow the seeds and make sure they all germinate.
Hopefully we’ll see you outside the Visitor Center in the next few weeks. And make sure to pop in and ask for Ranger Nick if you have any questions on your new seeds.
- Ranger Nick Dioguardi
The Umstead Coalition is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization.
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