Much is happening out there:
Gray squirrels are making leafy nests, and the velvet on white-tailed deer antlers has disappeared. Ohio buckeye nuts, black walnuts and butternuts are falling in numbers. A noticeable number of yellow leaves can be seen on eastern cottonwoods and native basswood trees. Red, burnt-orange and yellow is showing up on sugar maples.
Still, I am thinking about common milkweed pods. The first ones are opening, enabling the winds to spread their brown seeds across the lands on silver-white tufts of silky hairs.
More than 100 species of milkweeds grow in North America. We have 10 of them in Minnesota. From August into winter, pods of the various types in our state open to release seeds. The common milkweed is 3 to 4 feet tall, found in meadows, old fields and along roads, always in full sun, throughout the Upper Midwest. Flat at the bottom and pointed at the top, the warty-looking seed pods are easy to identify. In a few weeks a sunny warm day will force a great number of pods to burst, causing a beautiful scene to ensue as the seeds on silvery parachutes, puffed out in masses, flow from the pods in the late afternoon sunshine.
A striking peculiarity of common milkweed is the large amount of milky-white juice that pours out of the slightest wound to a stem, flower or leaf. This liquid is not the sap of the plant. It's a special secretion and quite distasteful, which is the reason grazing animals usually avoid the milkweed. It served some early European settlers as glue. Pioneers also used the silky threads on the seeds to stuff pillows and mattresses. During World War I, children were paid a penny a pound for the milkweed silk, which was used to stuff life preservers.
In South Dakota, milkweed plants are eaten by pronghorns. Throughout the United States, their leaves are eaten by monarch caterpillars. Chemicals in the leaves make the caterpillars' flesh distasteful to most predators.
Jim Gilbert is the author of five books on nature in Minnesota. He taught and worked as a naturalist for 50 years.