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Milkweeds again show up in the fields

Fluffy seeds are blown from the open Milkweed pods on a windy day. (Photos by Larry Weber)1 / 2
A single Milkweed seed gets caught on a branch from a nearby bush.2 / 2

Most of us are not likely to think of July or August when out walking in the scene of November. The landscape is quite bare after the trees have dropped their colorful foliage of last month. The autwin woods reveals plenty of green plants now visible on the forest floor before the impending snows will hide them from us for the next several months. ("Autwin" is what I call the period of time after leaves fall and before lasting snow arrives.)

But now we can see the large number of lichens, mosses, clubmosses, ferns and some flowering plants such as hepatica, pyrola and winter green that also are growing here and remaining green despite the leaf-drop. I pass through this remarkable autwin forest as I go on to the field.

The scene in this open space is quite different and I look out on a landscape of what at first appears a bunch of dead plants. Thanks to the growth and flowering of last summer, wildflowers of the field, mostly goldenrods and asters, grew well here. Though I may find an occasional fall wildflower still holding its flower, their blooming time is only a memory. (It seems like every November, a couple of goldenrods and asters along with a scattering of others — yarrow, clover, sow-thistle and dandelion — can still be found in bloom.) The product of the hot summer days is what I see now. On the tops of these plants that appear dead are the seeds that were formed back then in the warmth of summer.

I remember walking by these patches of wildflowers in the heat of July and August and noting that they were covered with abundant blossoms of yellow, purple and white. And here, too, were myriads of insects. The plants seemed to buzz as bees, flies and wasps moved through them. There also were species of beetles, ants, moths and, of course, the colorful butterflies. Much of the time that they lingered among the flowers, they fed on nectar and pollen and, as a side effect, they pass on the pollen of the plants. Thanks to this activity, the seeds were able to form on their flower heads. Forming seeds is only part of the job for the plant. It needs to disperse them as well.

When it comes to seed dispersal, the flowers out here in the field use various methods. Most take advantage of the winds that blow through these open spaces. They develop fluffy growths that allow the attached seeds to drift on the winds currents to find another site to grow. Though many wildflowers of summer use this method of wind dispersal, the four that I see mostly in this field are goldenrods, asters, thistles and milkweeds. Other plants make use of the mobile animals to move their seeds. Edible seeds within the red rose hips are eaten and carried off by mammals and birds. Not as obvious, but so are the seeds of clovers and tansies, mostly consumed by birds. Burdock develops sticky seeds, a lot like Velcro, to hang onto us or other passing animals, to transport the seeds within. The ones that really stand out now on this November day are the milkweeds.

It was about the first of July that I noticed the beginning of the flowering of this magnificent plant. Standing about 3 feet tall, the purple flowers open on a ball-shaped cluster growing along the main stem. Though I have found eight or more of these clusters on a single milkweed stem, the normal is about four or five. The clusters hold many of these light-purple, good-smelling blooms. Bees, flies and butterflies as well as other insects are attracted.

After pollination, the seeds begin to develop within a long pod. Rounded on one end, pointed on the other, they form where the flowers were in July. Inside the pods, the seeds mature and develop along with the parachute-like growths attached. As the pods ripen and turn brown, they split open.

It was during the first week of October when I first noticed the pods opening here in the field and the fluffy seeds emerging. Soon this whole patch seemed to be white with these fluffy seeds. As the stem and leaves of these plants died, the white fluff became more pronounced. And now, as I walk here, I'm surrounded by the seeds and their wind-friendly fluffy attachments, waiting to detach and drift in the breeze.

Today is calm and I don't expect much of a flight, but a couple of days ago I came here during a strong east wind. And true to the design, the seeds were being pulled from the pods and flying about the field. Most will not find an adequate site to grow but the milkweeds, like other perennials, persist in their rootstocks and will survive winter to grow again next year.

These blown and scattered fluffy seeds add much to this November scene. We are appreciating this plant more now due to its connection to the well loved monarch butterflies. And so, like many, I'm glad to find a patch of milkweeds with mature seeds dispersing in these days of autwin.

Larry Weber

Retired teacher Larry Weber is the author of several books, including “Butterflies of the North Woods,” “Spiders of the North Woods,” “Webwood” and “In a Patch of Goldenrods.” Contact him c/o budgeteer@duluthbudgeteer.com.

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