I just love the wonder and excitement in a child’s eyes when they discover something new in the garden. It’s what drew me to teaching garden education classes. During every class, I tried to instill a love of nature using a child’s innate sense of wonder and discovery. This project uses the milkweed seed as a way to connect young children to the wonder and beauty of the Monarch butterfly.
This lesson is also important because the Monarch butterfly is in trouble. According to the non-profit Save Our Monarchs, both the Monarch butterfly’s numbers and milkweed plant population are both down 90% from 1992. These plants are disappearing quickly due to widespread spraying of weed killer and land development. The greatest problem with the reduced amount of milkweed in our environment is that it’s the only plant the Monarch in it’s caterpillar stage eats, so it’s essential to the species survival. Milkweed sap is poisonous to the Monarch’s predators which is one of the reasons having milkweed as a host plant for caterpillars (thus making them poisonous to predators) is so important. However, harvesting and planting milkweed is one way we can help.
A story is a great way to begin any garden adventure with children. For this project, my favorite is Eric Carle’s The Very Hungry Caterpillar so that I can easily describe the life cycle of a butterfly. For an older child, Helen Frost’s Monarch and Milkweed is a great choice. It discusses the beautiful relationship between milkweed plants and the Monarch butterfly.
Next, we discuss our “garden adventure.” I tell them that are going to go on an important mission to find a very special plant in the garden. I discuss how the milkweed plant is the only plant that a Monarch will lay its eggs, provides the perfect protection for the cocoon, and It is also the very first meal for the baby monarch caterpillars. Without the milkweed plant, there would be no Monarchs. So we are off to harvest our milkweed pods and save our seeds for Spring planting!
How to harvest milkweed:
Begin by looking for pods that are ready to pop open. If it is not easy to pop it open, it is not ready. Do not pick pods that are not ready or you will discover light green seeds that are not viable for planting. Peek in pods that open easily and look for dark brown seeds.
Once you have found your seeds, it is time to deal with separating the seeds from the fluff. I have found the absolute best way is to take a paper bag with a few coins in it. Add the milkweed fluff and seeds and SHAKE IT UP! The kids will love this part!
After the bag is shaken up a bit, the seeds will separate from the fluff and can be stored easily for spring planting. To encourage germination in the spring, its best to store them in a paper bag in the fridge.
Why harvest and plant the seeds?
Milkweed seeds are indeed self-sowing but are often carried by the wind to areas where they won’t set seed (tree tops, ponds, paved areas, fields sprayed with chemicals, etc.). So, saving some to plant in your own garden or nearby meadow is one way to assure there will be plenty of milkweed to feed your visitors next late summer.
If you end up with extra milkweed seeds, consider donating them to Save Our Monarchs and they will redistribute the seeds.
You can send the seeds to:
Save Our Monarchs Foundation, PO Box 39013 Minneapolis, MN 55439