How To Collect Milkweed Down for Insulation and Tinder
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)
"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!
Learning about monarch butterflies
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...
A great little spark striker to use with your milkweed down tinder!
Sew your own vest to stuff and insulate with milkweed down!
Create your own hypo-allergenic milkweed down pillows!