Did you know milkweed was used during World War II? I learned this bit of American history by reading When Angels Rest, by Donald Harington, one of my favorite Arkansas authors. When Angels Rest is classified as literary fiction. When I read about the characters in the story collecting milkweed pods for the war effort, I suspected this must have been based on the truth, even though I’d never heard about it. As a huge fan of milkweed—we grow several varieties for the monarchs— I dove into the rabbit hole, reading all about this piece of American history I’d never learned.
Maybe you already knew about this? Maybe your parents or grandparents told stories of this? Mine didn’t.
Your Milkweed May Be Used as a Flotation Device
Prior to WWII, life preservers were filled with the floss of the kapok tree, a tree that grew in the West Indies. During the war, Japan took control of the islands where these trees grew, thus cutting off the Allies’ supply.
Milkweed floss became an excellent substitute with properties much like goose-down. The fluff of the milkweed pod is naturally buoyant and water repellant. Nature provides!
The Soil Conservation Service, in conjunction with the U.S. Department of Education, provided information and guidelines for the collection of milkweed during World War II. Excerpts are below.
Enter the Children
By the fall of 1944, our men were deep into war and most of our womenfolk had rolled up their sleeves and joined the work force. Children were sent out to gather milkweed for the war effort, with schools and 4-H clubs eagerly participating in the call for help.
Mesh onion bags were manufactured and specifically used for collection. Two mesh bags filled with milkweed fluff provided filling for one life jacket.
Kids earned approximately twenty cents per bag depending upon weight.
Now is the Time
Now is the time of the year when milkweed pods begin to brown and split open, sending fluff sailing through our neighborhood. I imagine the children who lived in the Ozarks during WWII worked hard to collect the pods. And I imagine during this time when food was rationed, they were thrilled over the money they earned.
By the end of the war, children had picked 2.5 million pounds of milkweed.
I’ve heard people say they prefer to read non-fiction because fiction is, well, made-up. They act as though fiction isn’t worth their time. Ha. Not me. I learn something from every book I read, whether fiction or non-fiction. I may learn a new-to-me word or discover a thread of history woven into a fictional tale that turns into an entire history lesson. Like this use of milkweed during WWII lesson.
Stories from WWII always astound me—the bravery and ingenuity and diligence of our ancestors is something we should shuffle to the front of our minds and never allow to fade away. I think this is especially important as our present world begins to look less and less like the world of yesterday. And not in a good way.
Grace Grits and Gardening
Farm. Food. Garden. Life.
P.S. For more in-depth information on the history of milkweed during World War II and the process plant built in Michigan, read THIS article.