The photo below of milkweed (Asclepias), chosen to illustrate the weekly photo challenge, has a familiar story, as well as one you may not know.
Asclepias are among the best plants to attract butterflies, particularly monarchs, whose caterpillars feast on the foliage. In fact, these plants literally keep the monarch afloat, serving as a lifeline as the butterflies migrate from Mexico to the US and Canada in spring and then return to Mexico in autumn.
In the 1940s, however, milkweed was prized for another reason following the Japanese capture of Java and the Philippines, the island homes of the silk-cotton tree (Ceiba pentandra), which produced the seed floss that stuffed life preservers.
As it turned out, milkweed floss was a suitable substitute; it’s hollow, wax coated, flexible, and six times lighter than wool. Just a pound and a half of milkweed floss could keep a 150-pound man afloat for 10 hours.
Folks across the country were asked to help collect milkweed pods and tens of thousands were gathered by farmers, civic clubs, school groups, and anyone willing to lend a hand. In 1944 and 1945, millions of pounds of pods were collected to produce the life vests that came to be known as “Mae Wests,” a reference to the well-endowed figure of one of the soldier’s favorite pinup girls.