Vermont Garden Journal: The Milkweed Revival

Dec 1, 2017

I love it when old ideas come full-circle and become relevant again. For example, take milkweed. This common plant is considered a weed by farmers trying to grow forage crops; however, it's prized by butterfly lovers since the plant provides essential food for the monarch butterfly. Now, milkweed has another use that harkens back to Colonial times.   

In Colonial New England, milkweed fluff or floss was collected and used to stuff pillows and mattresses. It fell out of favor as goose down and synthetic fibers became more popular. Now, a group of Vermont and Quebec farmers, a clothing manufacturer and a chemical engineering company are bringing milkweed floss back.

The clothing and engineering companies have found milkweed floss to make an excellent winter insulation for jackets. They tested it with climbers on Mount Everest and with the Canadian Coast Guard with great success. Not only is this a great use for common milkweed, but farmers are now purposefully growing it to supply the manufacturer. The Monarch Cooperative is a group of farmers growing more than 2,000 acres of milkweed and farmers are making about $800 per acre from their harvest.

The other plus is that milkweed floss isn't harvested until fall after all the leaves drop. All summer, monarch butterfly larvae are able to feed and live on the plants without cutting back the floss production. So the monarchs get the benefit of the milkweed while the farmers get to harvest the floss after the butterflies leave. 

Now for this week's tip:  if you saved an old amaryllis bulb from last year and had put it in cold storage for a few months in fall, now is the time to get it growing again. Bring your amaryllis bulb out of storage and into a warm room with bright light. Once you see new growth forming, water and, hopefully by the holidays, you'll have a beautiful amaryllis flower.