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Winter Weeds: Common Milkweed In late fall when I’m hiking near fields and roads I often see plants with big seed pods and white fluff tumbling out. The plants are milkweed but they look quite Official Blog of the UC Master Gardener Program of Contra Costa County information about bindweed

Winter Weeds: Common Milkweed

In late fall when I’m hiking near fields and roads I often see plants with big seed pods and white fluff tumbling out. The plants are milkweed but they look quite different from their summer appearance.

Common milkweed is a conspicuous perennial in winter because its large, warty, seed pods stand high on three to five foot stems.

The pods are fat at the bottom, pointed at the top and split open on their long edge to reveal soft, silky fluff carefully layered inside. Each wad of silk is attached to a flat, brown seed.

When exposed to the weather the silk becomes fluffy and eventually flies off the plant, carrying its seed cargo as far as it will go. The pods stand high to send their bounty on the wind.

To me one of the great mysteries of milkweed is that it looks so different in winter. In summer it’s weighed down with large, drooping, pink flower umbels but now the pods stick up alone and there are far fewer of them than the number of flowers in the umbel. I have read that only one flower in each milkweed umbel produces a seed pod. (Do any of you know how this works?)

Common milkweed is a great plant for attracting monarch butterflies to your garden. If you already have milkweed you can leave the stems standing over the winter and watch where the seeds fly.

When you’re ready to clear them away in the spring, Marcy Cunkelman suggests you save the dried stems and put them out in mid-April for the birds to use as nesting material. The fibers are strong and peel off in strips. They’re quite a favorite of Baltimore orioles.

(photo by Marcy Cunkelman)

3 thoughts on “ Winter Weeds: Common Milkweed ”

I like milkweed, enjoyed looking for the plant. When I was in 3rd(Now here goes telling people “I am old”) our school was brought truckloads of burlap sacks to fill with milkweed pods because they were used to fill the vests the WW II GIs wore. We were all so proud doing it. This was when I lived in Gibsonia & one of the buildings you now see in a St. Barnabas Senior Community in Richland Twp. is actually our old grade school (talk about recycling!!). We had a chart in each classroom & I don’t know what the winner got, I suppose a party or something. So I always have fond memories about the milk weed. However, I did not know that the seeds were not in every pod. Some of these weeds are what keep winter in the woods interesting it seems. Everything for a purpose if only to enjoy.

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I will look for pods in my fields to save for nesting material in April. Always enjoy your posts — the dried milkweed photo is great — barbara

I love milkweed too!

It smells great when the blossoms bloom. Also, when in bloom they attract a great variety of insects, bees, butterflies and the like. Monarchs and other insects make it their home for the summer season. Also, note, raising Monarch butterflies is great fun for kids and us adults too. And then, like Kate describes, gathering the silky pods in late fall for the birds in the spring for nesting material is an added bonus. So much to enjoy from a simple weed and it cost only some time.

That is the best thing about nature. It cost so little to enjoy so much. Everyday a great film is being played right outside your door. Every season brings a newly released feature film. Make some popcorn if you like and enjoy. Enjoy my friends, enjoy!

Seed Pod Weed

Hairy Bittercress (Cardamine hirsuta)

I’ve become fascinated with this weed, at least so far. I’ve more-or-less got it under control in my garden. I really don’t remember it from years ago, but it sure has been a pest the last 5 years or so. Not a native of California, it is now here for the foreseeable future… and beyond. I can’t say it’s the worst weed in the garden, but it sure requires attention to keep it under control. Especially these days when it will be competing for available water.

Even if you didn’t recognize it outright, maybe you’ve had the experience of being out in the garden pulling winter weeds when you’re pulling what looks like a small “innocent” weed only to find it exploding seeds in your face and all over the nearby garden? The most likely culprit is Hairy Bittercress (Cardamine hirsuta), which starts growing almost immediately with the onset of the late winter rains. It originally looks like a small, flat rosette of small leaves and then in what seems like the next day, quickly produces small white, four-petal flowers on wiry green stems. Most of the problems with this weed can be “solved” if you pull it at this stage or at least before it flowers. Seemingly overnight, the flowers form needle-thin seed pods, which explode at the slightest touch, sending seeds in all directions (averaging around 600 seeds per plant… and the bigger the plant, even more seeds). Besides your garden, the seeds are easily propagated in cracks in flagstone, brick or concrete walkways.

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Because Hairy Bittercress thrives in moist conditions and disturbed soil, it is also a pest in nurseries, and can be brought home via plant purchases. If you think that’s a problem for you, some cautious gardeners carefully remove the top inch or two of soil in the pots before planting. (If you do this, you should dispose of the scraped-off soil in your green can.)

If all else fails, Hairy Bittercress is a member of the mustard family and is edible, but you need to do your own research to find the right recipe to enjoy it (for an example, see http://www.eatingniagara.com/2013/04/weed-wednesday-make-that-hairy.html). To get ahead of its persistence in the garden, it’s definitely worth patrolling your garden for this weed once or twice a week during the winter and spring. It’s easy to hand pull when young. Once the seeds pop, you’ll be fighting a much bigger crop next year and it’s rare that herbicides would be considered appropriate for control in a home garden.

Another reason it’s my “favorite” weed? I still remember a fellow student in our Master Gardener class relating how she had “convinced” her young son to help weed the spring garden and he was complaining about the weed seeds popping in his face. She answered him by telling him to go in the house and get his safety goggles on and keep on weeding… something you might be considering adding to your gardening tools if you let Hairy Bittercress (Cardamine hirsuta) go to flower and reseed.

Bindweed

Field Bindweed · Convolvulus arvensis L. · is a perennial broad-leaved plant that spreads over the soil and other structures, and often form mats. Leaves alternate along the stem. Leaf size and shape will be varied; typically leaves are up to two inches long and egg-shaped. Flowers are typically white, but often they are light pink and have two leaf-like structures half-way between the main stem and the base of the flower, which is a distinct characteristic.The flowering stage is when most field bindweed is noticed.

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The root system is what makes the weed so hard to control. Roots can extend to as far as 30 feet deep. These roots compete with crops for moisture and nutrients, and give field bindweed an advantage over the newly seeded crops by already being in the soil.

Seed pods are egg-shaped, 1/4″ in diameter, and contain two to four seeds. Seeds are shaped like a slice out of an orange, small (only 1/8″ long), and covered by rough raised dots. Though small, these seeds can lay dormant for as long as 30 years.
Specific Control

Field Bindweed is a noxious weed that can be a severe problem in the largest field or the smallest garden. A summer herbicide treatment will control existing growth and eliminate seed production. For lasting control, a three-phase treatment plan should begin at first blooming and continue through fall:
Phase I Treat Field Bindweed with an approved herbicide or control measure shortly after flowering blooms appear. Phase II Retreat new bindweed growth approximately 30 to 45 days after the initial treatment or when 12″ – 18″ runners exist. Phase III Retreat returned bindweed growth with an approved systemic herbicide after the first frost in the fall, but before nighttime temperatures reach 20°F. Chemical Controls

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