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How To Collect Milkweed Down for Insulation and Tinder

Updated on March 31, 2012

Milkweed: a plant of many uses

Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca and related species) is a very versatile and useful plant, its leaves acting as food for the caterpillar of the monarch butterfly, its spring shoots and young pods edible by humans, and its dried stalks providing excellent fibers for wilderness rope, cordage, clothing and fishing nets.

Down from the milkweed plant has many uses as well, and in this article, we will explore methods for harvesting, preparing and using this widely-available resource, some variation of which can be found growing in nearly every area of the country.

All photos taken by the author, unless otherwise noted.

Historical uses of milkweed down

Insulation, tinder, bedding...and life-vest stuffing!

Historically the fine, silky hairs of milkweed down have been used for everything from tinder for spark-based fire-starting, insulation for cold weather moccasins, lifejacket stuffing, clothing and bedding insulation, mattress filler, has been spun (usually in combination with something that has longer fibers) and woven into a fine, silky cloth, and today the fibers are also being used to stuff pillows and comforters for people suffering from allergies.

Each fiber--created to be incredibly light and buoyant in order to carry the milkweed seed to its new growing destination--is hollow and waterproof, able to regain a good deal of its loft after being crushed or compressed, and drying quickly when soaked, unlike similarly-insulating goose down.

Milkweed down has, in fact, been found in recent studies to be twenty percent warmer when used as jacket insulation than a similar weight of goose down. The ability to shed water and remain buoyant when wet led to milkweed down being used to stuff lifejackets during World War II, with schoolchildren being sent out to collect the pods as a way to help the war effort.

Kapok, which was the standard material filling life preservers at the time, became difficult to obtain after Japanese control of Java during the war cut off the main supply, and milkweed down provided a temporary replacement. Nearly eleven million pounds of milkweed pods were collected during the course of the war across the US and Canada.

Milkweed Pods, Union Street School, Middleborough, MA, photograph by Horace K. Atkins, November, 1944. (Middleboro Gazette)

Milkweed Pods, Union Street School, Middleborough, MA, photograph by Horace K. Atkins, November, 1944. (Middleboro Gazette)
Milkweed Pods, Union Street School, Middleborough, MA, photograph by Horace K. Atkins, November, 1944. (Middleboro Gazette)

"Flanking the 109 sacks of milkweed pods gathered by Middleborough schoolchildren in the autumn of 1944 are Superintendent of Schools J. Stearns Cushing and Bates Junior High School principal Norman W. Lindsay who let the collection efforts."

Middleboro Gazette, November 15, 1944

When to collect milkweed down

The best time to collect the pods for harvesting down is shortly after they have reached their full size, but before the plants begin turning yellow and the pods opening up to let the down--and seeds--fly.

The pods can actually be eaten when they are young and small, boiled in two changes of water to remove the bitter white sap; a treat which somewhat resembles okra in both taste and texture. I enjoy a batch or two of them every spring, and some years have canned up many pints of "pickled milkweed pods" in vinegar, seasoned with dill, garlic and cayenne pepper.

Now, back to the down harvest. To test the pods for readiness, open one up and inspect the seeds inside. They should be fully formed but white instead of brown, and the inside of the pod should be damp, the down tightly clinging to the core in the center.

Once collected (leave behind a pod or two per plant, to ensure that seeds exist to spread next year's crop) the pods can be kept for a few days in a plastic grocery bag or other semi-airtight container if need be, before separating the seeds from the down. Care needs to be taken that the pods do not dry out so much that they begin to split and open, though, (at which point your job will become much harder!) or remain wet and closed up long enough that they start to mold.

Grow your own milkweed! - Attract butterflies to your yard or garden, and create your own source of milkweed pods and down for projects

Monarch butterflies and milkweed

Milkweed is an indispensable food source for the beautiful monarch butterfly, which drinks nectar from the plant's flowers and lays its eggs on the underside of the leaves. Monarch caterpillars feed on the leaves, sometimes consuming upwards of one large leaf each day! You may see one of these colorful black, white and yellow creatures while out collecting milkweed pods, and if so, be sure to leave it undisturbed to continue growing and eventually transform into a butterfly!

Separating milkweed down from seeds

Remove each of the down bundles from its pod by pulling the pod apart at the center and gently freeing the contents, either scraping the seeds off with your finger or thumbnail right then, or laying them aside and freeing the seeds after you have all of the bundles out of the pods.

Seeds should be collected and saved, either for sprouting (to eat) or, if you don't want to try this, simply thrown back out in the general areas from which you collected the pods, in order to ensure a plentiful wild crop for the following year!

The down, once freed of its seeds, will be damp and appear rather wilted, and needs to be aired out and given time to dry before it is either used or packaged up for later use.

I like using loosely woven willow baskets for the drying, but a cardboard box with a number of small holes punched in it to let the air flow through will work, as well.

If you wait until the seeds have turned brown to separate them from the down, they will come loose somewhat easier (and probably have a better chance of sprouting, if you plan to use them for that) but the task will be more difficult overall, as the down will have begun drying and will try very hard to fly away on you as you work!

If you choose to wait until the seeds brown, it is very helpful to tightly grasp each down bundle at its top when removing from the pod, not releasing this grasp until all of the seeds have been scraped loose. Otherwise, the down will tend to separate from the core and go flying about as you try to work; very frustrating. Try it both ways; you will quickly discover which you prefer.

Using milkweed down

Soft, warm, springy and very versatile!

The down will expand greatly as it dries, and needs to be handled with care after it is done, to prevent it blowing all over your camp or sticking in your carpet as you handle it! You are now ready to use the silk to fill a down vest, stuff between two layers of wool socks for additional warmth, or even fill a quilt or comforter, if you have enough of it!

In addition to being a great insulator, milkweed down also makes the best natural tinder I have found for catching a spark from a spark-based firestarter such as a ferrocerium (ferro) rod. It will, in my experience, catch a spark even more easily than cotton, flare right up and burn long enough to ignite your kindling.

A good combination that I like to use for fire-starting (as all of the materials are readily available in my area) is milkweed down to catch the sparks, surrounded by finely shredded juniper (or any type of cedar) bark to hold the sparks a bit longer. The milkweed down usually flares right up on the first strike of the ferro rod, then the longer lasting juniper goes, and you have instant fire...

I always carry a little bag of milkweed down in my fire kit, and have never found anything better for catching a spark, the first time every time. Also, I have come up with a "wilderness alternative" to the petroleum jelly-soaked cotton balls that so many of us carry, by melting pine or spruce pitch and pouring it over little wads of milkweed down, leaving a bit of down sticking out to catch the sparks.

To help make use of your milkweed down...

Light My Fire Original Swedish FireSteel Scout 3,000 Strike Fire Starter - Red
Light My Fire Original Swedish FireSteel Scout 3,000 Strike Fire Starter - Red

A great little spark striker to use with your milkweed down tinder!

 
Vintage Men's Simplicity 5350 PATTERN Down Vest Shirt
Vintage Men's Simplicity 5350 PATTERN Down Vest Shirt

Sew your own vest to stuff and insulate with milkweed down!

 

Have you ever used milkweed down, pods, stems or any other part of the plant? - Tell us about it!

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    • profile image

      brendajoy 5 years ago

      Excellent work, great pictures and right on target all throughout the lens. Very Impressive.

    • Mim Art profile image

      Mim Art 5 years ago

      i always seem to miss the best collection time for these precious pods. I'll have to bookmark yet another one of your lenses as I keep reading through them. You truly are a great writer and informer!

    • ViJuvenate profile image

      ViJuvenate 5 years ago

      Not yet. I grew up loving the season when the monarch caterpillars were all over the milkweed plants. We lived very near a stopover for the monarch migrations. Wonderful thing to see!

    • WriterJanis2 profile image

      WriterJanis2 5 years ago

      Wow! I learned a lot here. Thanks for the great info!

    • virtualboy profile image

      virtualboy 5 years ago

      I never have but I think it's interesting that it can catch a spark

    • profile image

      TheDeeperWell 5 years ago

      You have amazing photographs of this collection process.

    • Northwestphotos profile image

      Northwestphotos 5 years ago

      Absolutely fascinating lens! I grew up with Milkweed plants in the northeast US. But now that I live in the Pacific Northwest, I never see any of these plants. Not sure if they grow here.

    • dahlia369 profile image

      dahlia369 5 years ago

      Wonderful information about such a precious plant as the milkweed seems to be - thank you!! :)

    • jordanmilesbask profile image

      jordanmilesbask 5 years ago

      OMG! This is a great lens... I love this 'cause I learn something new...

    • profile image

      anonymous 5 years ago

      A wonderful Lens - I really enjoyed reading this. I wonder if we can grow milkweed in south Australia? Blessed

    • kerbev profile image

      kab 5 years ago from Upstate, NY

      I had never heard about the war effort collecting milkweed down.

    • bjslapidary profile image

      bjslapidary 5 years ago

      Wow! I didn't know all this. Have never used them, but have always been intrigued with them. Now I'm going to have to try this. Thanks for this wonderful lens.

    • elsiesflat profile image

      elsiesflat 5 years ago

      This is the most interesting lens I've read in a while. Fascinating. Thank you so much.

    • wheresthekarma profile image

      wheresthekarma 5 years ago

      Interesting, i had no idea. Agree with Jimmy, great photos here!

    • profile image

      JimmyBooth 5 years ago

      Some fantastic images here, thanks for posting this Lense

    • mowug1776 profile image

      mowug1776 5 years ago

      congrats on the purple star, great lens.

    • flicker lm profile image

      flicker lm 5 years ago

      Stopping by to congratulate you on the Purple Star. Well deserved!

    • thesuccess2 profile image

      thesuccess2 5 years ago

      EASY Angel Blessings +++

    • Demaw profile image

      Demaw 5 years ago

      Maybe I will try to sprout the seeds, useful info.

    • profile image

      AudreyRosenchild 5 years ago

      Wow, how interesting! Thanks for the great read. :)

    • Gabriel360 profile image

      Gabriel360 5 years ago

      No I haven't, but this i really informative! Thanks! Great job!

    • allenwebstarme profile image

      allenwebstarme 5 years ago

      No I never used milkweed but this is really amazing and unique lens. Good share.

    • profile image

      aquarian_insight 5 years ago

      Oh wow, this is all news to me! Amazing uses for the milkweed.

    • profile image

      MissChassit 5 years ago

      We have a lot of milkweed where I live. This is great information for me! Thanks!

    • Frednun1965 profile image

      Fred Alb 5 years ago from Uruguay

      Is more interesant, in Uruguay there are also wild plant that unfortunately is unknown use.

    • profile image

      greenlivingsource 5 years ago

      this is really interesting.

    • KathyBatesel profile image

      KathyBatesel 5 years ago

      I had no idea, but while I'm out in the woods during the warm weather, I'll keep my eyes peels and a bag handy.

    • profile image

      JoshK47 5 years ago

      A fascinating read, indeed! I didn't know that it was such a useful plant! Great lens! :)

    • dnuttall profile image

      dnuttall 5 years ago

      Milkweed is something I normally try to keep out of our yard. Now I may have to let a few grow in a controlled area if for nothing else but to attract the butterflies. Thanks for sharing!

    • profile image

      anonymous 5 years ago

      Very interesting article, I had to stop a few times to make sure I was reading this right, very creative topic.

    • jlshernandez profile image

      jlshernandez 5 years ago

      I learned a lot about milkweed from this lens. I never knew the many uses of milkweed until today. Thanks for taking the time to put this together and publishing the lens.

    • pheonix76 profile image

      pheonix76 5 years ago from WNY

      I have enjoyed watching monarch caterpillars feeding on milkweed, but have never used any part of this plant. I really love this idea -- it's quite wonderful actually. Thanks for sharing and your photos are phenomenal!

    • captainj88 profile image

      Leah J. Hileman 5 years ago from East Berlin, PA, USA

      No, and it was all over the place where my grandparents lived, but I never knew of its uses as a child. What an odd but very interesting lens subject! Thanks so much for sharing, I really enjoyed reading this.

    • profile image

      anonymous 5 years ago

      I saw this lens in the Spotlight Section of the forums, and it is everything it was advertized to be. It is very well written and the illustrations are amazing. Great lens. Now, time to go find some milkweed.

    • ferginarg lm profile image

      ferginarg lm 5 years ago

      Wow this is great, I didn't know this plant before now, for Monarch butterfly's in New Zealand we have the traditional swan plant, they produce the same type of down, but I would image in a lot less quantities than the milk weed. Thanks for this I thoroughly enjoyed reading it.

    • profile image

      anonymous 5 years ago

      I just loved and blessed this gem recently and it is my joy to return to congratulate you on front page honors!

    • Diana Wenzel profile image

      Renaissance Woman 5 years ago from Colorado

      Fantastic article. I remember being amazed the first time I started delving deeper into the various way milkweed may be used. The use of milkweed down in life vests is the thing that first caught my attention. I love all of your work here on Squidoo. Thanks for the excellence! Appreciated.

    • Lee Hansen profile image

      Lee Hansen 5 years ago from Vermont

      When I was a kid I used to make little nests with down in them like you show in your photo. I was just doing nature crafts to make fairy beds ... had no idea milkweed down was actually used as a wartime insulation for life vests. Interesting!

    • ecogranny profile image

      Kathryn Grace 5 years ago from San Francisco

      This ranks as one of the best lenses I've ever seen on Squidoo. I love it for its uniqueness, for how well written it is, for the care you've taken in illustrating it, for the information, almost all of which is entirely new to me, and for its multi-faceted usefulness. Angel blessed, and I'm nominating for a purple star and for lens of the day.

    • LiteraryMind profile image

      Ellen Gregory 5 years ago from Connecticut, USA

      This is one of the best lenses I have ever seen. Absolutely fascinating. I never knew milkweed was edible and so many uses.

    • tyrosine profile image

      tyrosine 5 years ago

      Really interesting and special!!! Thx for sharing!

    • Einar A profile image
      Author

      Einar A 5 years ago

      @anonymous: So glad you liked seeing my experiments with milkweed down, and found the information useful--I always enjoy your visits!

    • profile image

      anonymous 5 years ago

      I just had to FB this Einar, fascinating!

    • profile image

      anonymous 5 years ago

      Einar, you had my jaw dropped in fascination here. There is nothing more silky soft to the touch than milkweed down and I've wondered if there were uses for it and you sure have answered any questions I might have had and then some! I always feel so refreshed after visiting your things of the wild lenses, thank you!

    • CNelson01 profile image

      Chuck Nelson 5 years ago from California

      Very interesting...I had no idea of these uses for milkweed. As a kid growing up on a ranch I was given a shovel and sent into the irrigated pastures to cut down milkweed and thistles which were weeds in that context.

    • Elyn MacInnis profile image

      Elyn MacInnis 5 years ago from Shanghai, China

      I loved this lens! Thank you so much for so many fine ideas - We used to get glass beakers from the lab and put milkweed pods in them and then put a lightbulb and shade on the top. The milkweed in the beaker makes a magical lamp base!

    • profile image

      Terrie_Schultz 5 years ago

      I love this!

    • SophiaStar LM profile image

      SophiaStar LM 5 years ago

      Fascinating and extremely useful thank you for sharing your wonderful knowledge on milkweed.

    • profile image

      anonymous 5 years ago

      What a great resource, this was wonderful

    • ItayaLightbourne profile image

      Itaya Lightbourne 5 years ago from Topeka, KS

      Another awesome article by you! I always learn something and end up saving it to refer to later. Thank you! :)

    • artbyrodriguez profile image

      Beverly Rodriguez 5 years ago from Albany New York

      Beautifully done lens. I never thought about milkweed down before.

    • DIY Mary profile image

      DIY Mary 5 years ago

      Very interesting lens! I really like the idea of using milkweed down to stuff pillows.

    • Scriber1 LM profile image

      Scriber1 LM 5 years ago

      Interesting and easy to use lens. Great job!

    • BuckHawkcenter profile image

      BuckHawkcenter 5 years ago

      Nice job. I love how you give such good instructions, even I could do that!

    • serendipity831 profile image

      Drake McSherry 5 years ago from Milwaukee, WI

      Very interesting lens! :)

    • profile image

      bdkz 5 years ago

      Beautiful!

    • mbgphoto profile image

      Mary Beth Granger 5 years ago from O'Fallon, Missouri, USA

      Very interesting...I learned some new things about milkweed today!

    • JEMArtistry profile image

      JEMArtistry 5 years ago

      This is great. Thanks for sharing this. :)

    • profile image

      getmoreinfo 5 years ago

      Wow this is really interesting, learned something new.

    • mary lighthouse15 profile image

      mary lighthouse15 5 years ago

      This has been a great information about milkweed! two thumbs up!

    • SusannaDuffy profile image

      Susanna Duffy 5 years ago from Melbourne Australia

      Another wonderful resource from you on the gifts of Nature. This information on milkwood down is excellent. I had no idea such a humble little plant like milkwood was so useful.

    • sharioleary profile image

      Shari O'Leary 5 years ago from Minnesota

      What a great lens! Wish I'd written it!

    • profile image

      anonymous 5 years ago

      This is a very well written lens. Love the photos and all of the great information. I had no idea milkweed was useful iny way.

    • profile image

      mattheos 5 years ago

      Wow, that's awesome! Does a milkweed down pillow hold up to use as well as a feather down pillow?

    • profile image

      AlleyCatLane 5 years ago

      Never knew what milkweed was. Fascinating, educationa,l and well written article. Great photos too. Blessed!

    • LouisaDembul profile image

      LouisaDembul 5 years ago

      I have never used any part of milkweed. This was so interesting to learn about, and the photos are really great!

    • top101 profile image

      top101 5 years ago

      nice lens. I like the pictures.

    • victoriuh profile image

      victoriuh 5 years ago

      Beautiful and informative lens!

    • flicker lm profile image

      flicker lm 5 years ago

      Well done! I've used the down for tinder, but nothing else. I'd love to use it to make a down vest - or even a pillow - but those would be major projects.

    • MartieG profile image

      MartieG aka 'survivoryea' 5 years ago from Jersey Shore

      What a very interesting lens! I really learned about milkweed-thanks :>)

    • flycatcherrr profile image

      flycatcherrr 5 years ago

      You've done it again, Mountain critter friend - I always learn the coolest stuff from you!

      *blessed*

    • dotpattern profile image

      Pat Moire 5 years ago from West Village, New York City

      Going to carry milkweed in my backpack from now on to start fires while camping. So informative, and the pictures are perfect with the text.

    • iWriteaLot profile image

      iWriteaLot 5 years ago

      What an interesting lens! I had not idea you could do this with milkweed. I didn't even know it was edible. Now I'm going to have to go tramping through the woods and see if I can find this. I want to try this myself. Awesome lens! Blessed