Collecting and distributing milkweed seeds responsibly insures a healthy milkweed habitat population. There are also the additional benefits of opportunity for education and developing relationships with private landowners and communities.
Collect only your native or regional seedpods. Leave some pods in the area you are collecting to insure the plants continue to propagate and thrive in that area. A good rule of thumb is to take 1/3 and leave 2/3.
Positively identify the plant before collecting the pods. Milkweed seeds look alike in most species and are very difficult to identify by the seed alone. Mark the collecting container with your name, the date, species common name, species botanical name, and the location of the collection. For instance: “Cathy Downs, 5/24/14, Antelope Horn (Asclepias asperula), Kendall County, Texas.”
Collecting is usually done on private lands, public right of ways and roadsides. When collecting milkweed seeds on public right of ways and roadsides remember safety first! Park in an area where there is no chance of disrupting traffic or putting yourself in harms way. Do not collect in areas near or around development or private gate entrances without permission. Curious onlookers and officials may stop to discuss or inquire about this roadside activity. Take the opportunity and the time to explain politely what you are doing and why. You may even be joined by these curious folks in your efforts or directed to additional areas where they have spotted some of these treasures.
Private property collection always requires permission. As milkweed ambassadors we can not afford to alienate the private stewards of these habitats with any property infringement or trespassing issues on our part.
All milkweeds will put out a pod of some sort. The shape and surface texture may vary but the pods will all look similar. The top three species of concern in Texas are listed above.
When collecting pods be sure and have a dry cardboard box or paper bag to put the pods in. The milky sap is very sticky and fresh milkweed pods can mold very quickly. You can line the box with newspaper.
Do not pick a pod before it’s time. The seeds will not ripen in the pod when taken from the stem of the plant too soon. The seeds should be dark in color. Green or pale seeds are not ripe and will not propagate. You can remove the pod with a scissor or snips. Be very careful not to get any of the milky sap in your eyes or on your skin. Wash your hands thoroughly and often when handling milkweed.
Never harvest a pod until you see the seam of the pod straining or beginning to split. Be sure the pod is free of all flies, milkweed beetles and other seed eating pests. The pod will usually darken with maturity turning to a dark bark or mahogany color. Watch the seam on the milkweed pod which will start out thin and difficult to see eventually widening and turning pale. On maturity the pod will begin to split.
If you have a surplus of seed in your collecting region you have several choices. You can share the seed with your local or regional communities and schools distributing out of your home or you can ship the seed out for redistribution to other areas of need. I get many requests from Texas gardeners, individuals, schools and first time Monarch habitats for regional seed. There are also non profit and for profit growers and nurseries looking for native milkweed seed. Monarch Watch accepts seed from all over the nation to propagate with their partner nursery and then offers the plugs for sale at cost.
We are beginning to see a market develop in the commercial nursery industry for native milkweeds. If distributing seed to a commercial enterprise it is imperative we distribute only to those growers who have a reputation for non systemic pesticide use. Native American Seed in Junction now includes a variety of milkweeds in their catalogs and conservation packets which include milkweed seeds.
Milkweed seed collection is by its nature a relaxing and enjoyable past time. If we take care to show responsible collecting, storage and distribution practices we are insuring at least a stability if not an increase in healthy Monarch, insect and pollinator habitats.
If you have any questions, additional suggestions or surplus seeds for distribution please feel free to contact me.
Photos by Cathy Downs except for Antelope Horns and Easy Picking by Kip Kiphart.