Wind Riders

Milkweeds have been getting ready for this all summer. Now their seeds are becoming wind riders.

Inside each milkweed pod is packed a double row of seeds. Each seed is topped with a silken parachute.

swamp milkweed seeds are wind riders
Swamp milkweed, Asclepias incarnata, pods are thin and smooth. Inside the seeds are still packed in a double row. When the pod splits open on a dry, windy day, the wind pulls out the silk to send the seeds blowing on the wind.

At one time milkweed seed pods were gathered. The silk was used in life jackets. Now the more buoyant and easier to cultivate kapok has left milkweeds relegated to weed status.

Milkweed bugs have spent a month or more stabbing down into each pod seeking the developing seeds. Those they find are sucked dry. Those that escape have a center bulge with a flat wing around them perfect for gliding on the wind.

The common milkweed, purple and swamp milkweed pods ripen in early fall turning brown and dry. The seam down the side bursts to expose the seeds. Then they wait.

Rain is a disaster. The silk gets wet and mats gluing the seeds into a heavy mass. Even drying out doesn’t break up the mass which eventually falls to the ground.

wind riders being pulled out of milkweed pod
The silk threads on common milkweed, Asclepias syriaca, seeds is a couple of inches long. They are soft to the touch and tough. The many threads come from a single point on the top of the seed and break off when pulled sharply.

A soft breeze can pull a few seeds loose to drift away. These seeds rarely get even ten feet away. Dr. Rintz found this is the usual case.

Lucky seeds have a dry, windy day. The silk pulls loose. The wind grabs hold. The seeds become wind riders blowing across the pasture.

Even lucky seeds aren’t to the goal line yet. The seed must reach the ground. This sounds easy. The wind riders settle down like a hot air balloon to rest on the dirt.

milkweed seeds blowing in the wind
A stiff wind quickly pulls common milkweed, Asclepias syriaca, seeds out of their neat formation inside the pod. Most seeds pull out separately to go their own way. Some travel in a tangled clump.

Bare dirt is rare in nature. Plants grow on most of it in the Ozarks. The silk catches in the giant ragweed or the trees leaving the seed dangling.

A stiff breeze will break the seed loose to glide down and bounce its way down to the ground. If all goes right, the seed isn’t eaten and lands in a good spot, it will grow up in the spring to produce its own batch of wind riders.

Want to grow your own milkweeds? Find out more about handling seeds and seedlings in “Asclepias” by Dr. Richard Rintz.