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Plant of the Week: Milkweed

The University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture does not promote, support or recommend plants featured in "Plant of the Week." Please consult your local Extension office for plants suitable for your region.

Plant of the Week

Latin: Asclepias speciosa

Picture of a milkweed fibers.
Milkweed floss was collected from across the country during WWII as a stuffing material for life vests.

The Big War, now much in the news with the 60th anniversary of D-Day, did not personally touch my family because my father was given a deferment to raise wheat and kids on the farm in Oklahoma.

But homefolk were asked to contribute to the war effort in other ways, including the well known examples of all the Rosies going to work, collection drives of all kinds and various kinds of rationing. One of the most unusual of these collection drives must be the call that went out for milkweed floss.

Recently, while perusing the archived material of Dr. Dwight Moore (1891-1985) in the Special Collections Department of the Mullens Library at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville, I came across a letterhead that attracted my attention. It read "War Hemp Industries Inc., Milkweed Floss Division" and listed Moore as a regional director. Hemp? Milkweed Floss? What gives here?

As you would expect of any good taxonomist, and Dr. Moore was a notable botanist of the middle years of the 20th century, he was a meticulous record keeper. He worked at the university from 1924 until retirement in 1957. Then, he taught botany at the Forestry school in Monticello and Arkansas Tech in Russellville.

Moore’s Trees of Arkansas was, for many years, a valuable resource for anyone interested in knowing something of the wealth of trees that grow in our state.

It appears that during the war years, botanists throughout the country were asked to help coordinate the collection and shipping of milkweed pods to a processing plant in Petoskey, Mich. The pods were collected by farmers, church groups, civic clubs and anyone willing to assist.

Milkweed floss, the silken parachute attached to each seed and primarily obtained from Asclepias speciosa (common milkweed), became an important wartime commodity during the

1940s as the Japanese fleet fanned out across the Pacific and captured Java and the Philippines. From those islands came kapok, a seed floss from the silk-cotton tree (Ceiba pentandra), the fiber of which was used as a stuffing for life preservers.

It turns out that milkweed floss is a hollow, wax-coated, flexible fiber six times lighter than wool and ideally suited as a substitute for kapok. The sailors called these life vests "Mae Wests." a reference to the busty physique of one of their favorite wartime pinup girls. A pound and half of milkweed floss would keep a 150-pound sailor afloat for 10 hours.

Picture taken in 1944 of a 3rd grade class with milkweed pods they collected.
The photo is of a 3rd grade class in Woodstown, NJ and shows the bags of milkweed pods they collected in 1944 for the War effort.

During 1944 and 1945, more than 25 million pounds of wild-collected milkweed pods, enough to fill 700 freight train cars, were collected throughout North America. The floss comprises about 20 percent of the dry weight of a seed pod. The company ended up producing over two million pounds floss before the war ended, baling it in cotton-sized bales that weighed a scant 200 pounds.

The war’s end saw a drop in demand for life vests and the milkweed harvesting scheme fell by the wayside as the cheap, imported kapok returned to the market. But interest in milkweed never completely died out.

Natural Fibers Corp. of Ogallala, Neb., began marketing wild-collected milkweed floss again in 1989 under the brand name of Hyperdawn. It's primarily used to stuff pillows for people allergic to goose down. This year, the first five-acre field of milkweed will begin producing pods near Macomb, Ill. In addition to the floss, an extract from the seeds has been found to be effective at controlling nematodes and may have commercial applications.

Several milkweeds are grown in the flower garden, including our own native A. tuberosa, the butterfly weed. It grows in full sun locations and produces a 2-foot tall clump topped with large clusters of small orange flowers during early summer. In the garden, it reseeds freely from wind borne seeds that are carried about on their silken parachutes.

By: Gerald Klingaman, retired
Extension Horticulturist - Ornamentals
Extension News - June 18, 2004


The University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture does not maintain lists of retail outlets where these plants can be purchased. Please check your local nursery or other retail outlets to ask about the availability of these plants for your growing area.