If you have ever driven through Indiana, Kentucky, Illinois, or really anywhere in the Midwest in the fall, you have likely encountered what looks like white puffs of fur or fluff blowing in the breeze. When you're driving it can even look like it's flying right at you. But what is it?

What Is the White Fluffy Stuff in the Air?

That white fluffy stuff is actually milkweed floss. It is the milkweed plant's way of spreading its seeds and the plant "goes to seed" each fall usually around October. The floss acts like a little airplane for the seeds of the milkweed plant. It is picked up by the breeze and blown around until it lands somewhere it can germinate, take root, and grow a new milkweed plant next spring.

Photo by Natalie Wagner on Unsplash

Why Should We Care About Milkweed?

You might be asking why we should even care about milkweed if as its name implies, it's just a weed, but the milkweed is a crucial plant because of its role in the lifecycle of monarch butterflies. As pollinators, much like bees, monarch butterflies are imperative to our ecosystem.

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Milkweed Floss Was Used in World War II

Not only does the milkweed floss act as a transportation system for the seeds of the milkweed plant, but the white floss is actually a really cool material too. Because milkweed floss has the ability to float in water while holding up to 30 times its weight. The plant has been credited as saving thousands of lives in World War II as over 2 million pounds of milkweed floss was used to stuff military life jackets.

More Fascinating Facts About Milkweed

Keep reading to learn more about milkweed plants. We've put together a list of five facts about this versatile and important plant.

1. Milkweed is the Sole Source of Food for Monarch Caterpillars

Milkweed plants are the sole food source for monarch butterfly larvae. Monarchs lay their eggs on milkweed plants, and the hatched larvae exclusively feed on the leaves of the plant. The toxic compounds in milkweed leaves work to protect monarchs from predators.

Photo by Lasclay on Unsplash

2. Milkweed is Toxic But Has Been Used in Medicines

Milkweed plants contain a sticky, milky sap that can be toxic to humans and animals. This sap contains chemicals called cardenolides that can cause vomiting, seizures, and even death in high doses. However, some species of milkweed have been used in traditional medicine.

3. There Are More Than 100 Species of Milkweed Around the World

There are over 100 species of milkweed plants, and they can be found across North and South America, as well as Europe, Asia, and Africa. The most common species in North America is the common milkweed, which is often found in fields and along roadsides.

Photo by Michael & Diane Weidner on Unsplash

4. Milkweed Pollination is Unique

Milkweed plants have a unique pollination mechanism. The flowers produce a sticky substance called pollinia, which attaches to the legs of visiting insects. When the insect visits another milkweed flower, the pollinia are deposited allowing for cross-pollination.

5. Milkweed Is Important for Many Pollinators

Milkweed plants are an important source of nectar for many of our pollinators, including bees, butterflies, and even moths. They also provide a safe habitat for a variety of insects and other wildlife like beetles, aphids, and spiders.

The next time you're driving along and you spot the white fluffs of milkweed floss floating toward you, just know that you are in the midst of one of nature's little miracles.

[Source: saveourmonarchs.org]

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