Weekly Photo Challenge–Afloat

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.

Milkweed (Asclepias)

Milkweed (Asclepias)

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.



For more on this intriguing war story, detailed accounts can be found here and here.



22 thoughts on “Weekly Photo Challenge–Afloat

  1. Pauline

    I knew about the plant being necessary for your Monarch butterflies, but hadn’t heard about the life jackets, how fascinating to hear of its use in this way, many thanks.

    1. Marian St.Clair Post author

      Pauline–I came across the story recently when I was researching monarchs. It never occured to me that life vests would be filled with plant material of any sort.

    1. Marian St.Clair Post author

      Whichway–Thanks. Lots of seeds float, but the ones that come to mind for me are the ones that cause problems, like Japanese knotweed and the yellow flag iris (both invasive here).

    1. Marian St.Clair Post author

      Chloris–Its a perfect example of how the way we think has been altered by advancing technology. It seems nearly impossible that we were collecting plant silk for life vests just 70 years ago.

  2. Pingback: 15-04-12 Weekly Photo Challenge #2 Afloat | The Quotidian Hudson

    1. Marian St.Clair Post author

      Jason–That question hadn’t occured to me, but I did wonder if the collection of pods decimated the milkweed population. Just 70 years ago and the world was so different. Makes you think about rapid change in a whole new way.


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