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 Appreciate this witchy weed’s beautiful blooms and spiky seedpods, but beware. Its notoriously toxic seeds and leaves can cause convulsions, hallucinations or even death, and climate change is making its poisons even more powerful. Late winter and spring signal growth of all plants but especially weeds, like hairy bittercress weed. What is hairy bittercress? This article explains more as well as how to keep the weed under control.
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.
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!
Weed of the Month: Jimson Weed
Jimson weed (Datura stramonium) is a beautiful, witchy plant that begins blooming in late summer and continues through the first frost. A member of the notorious nightshade family, its more famous cousins include tomato, eggplant, pepper, tobacco, and potato. Most members of this plant family are poisonous, and jimson weed is no exception. All parts of the plant are toxic, most particularly the seeds. Potent amounts of alkaloid compounds are present, which potentially cause convulsions, hallucinations, and even death if ingested. And as climate change increases the amount of carbon dioxide in the air, studies have found that the toxicity of plants like jimson weed only increases.
The genus name Datura comes from the Hindi word for the plant, noteworthy since most botanical names are derived from Latin or Greek. The origins of the plant itself are contested—every source I checked listed a different native origin, ranging from Mexico to India, and it now grows all over the world. Not surprisingly, it has found its way into many cultural and medicinal traditions. Ayurveda, traditional Chinese medicine, and Native American shamanistic practices all employ jimson weed medicinally or ritualistically. Its seeds and leaves are used as an antiasthmatic, antispasmodic, hypnotic, and narcotic.
Having grown up in Virginia, I was intrigued by one of the common names I saw recurring in my plant books—Jamestown weed—and researched the origins. One story simply connects the first New World observations of the plant to settlers in this early Virginia colony. A more famous tale tells of the plant’s accidental ingestion by some British soldiers sent there to suppress Bacon’s Rebellion in 1676. After eating some in a stew, the soldiers spent 11 days in a hallucinatory stupor, blowing feathers, kissing and pawing their companions, and making faces and grinning “like monkey[s].”
Jimson weed’s white to purple blooms are fragrant at night, attracting moths and other nocturnal pollinators, a common trait in white-bloomed plants. The rest of the plant, however, is stinky! Crush and sniff the oaklike leaves, and you’ll understand why domesticated and wild animals avoid eating this plant—it smells a bit like feet. Indeed, accidental poisonings tend be more common among humans than among other animals.
Though the trumpet-shaped flowers are stunning, my favorite part of the plant is the devilish-looking seedpod. The size of a Ping-Pong ball and covered in spikes, the seed capsule splits into four parts like a monster’s maw, revealing the dark brown seeds inside. In the winter you might notice its tall, dry stalks bearing the prickly seedpods, which to me look like the scepter for a demon. With all its extraordinary looks and lore, jimson weed is a fascinating plant to contemplate (but maybe not cultivate)!
The Weed of the Month series explores the ecology and history of the common wild plants that most gardeners consider weeds.
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Saara Nafici is the executive director of Added Value/Red Hook Community Farm. She is also the former coordinator of the Garden Apprentice Program at Brooklyn Botanic Garden and a longtime activist, feminist, bicyclist, naturalist, and youth educator. Follow her weedy plant adventures on Instagram.
Hairy Bittercress Killer: Learn More About Control For Hairy Bittercress
Late winter and spring signal growth of all plants, but especially weeds. Annual weed seeds overwinter and then burst into growth towards the end of the season. Hairy bittercress weed is no exception. What is hairy bittercress? The plant is an annual weed, which is one of the earliest to sprout and form seeds. Control for hairy bittercress starts early in the season, before flowers turn to seed and get a chance to spread.
What is Hairy Bittercress?
Hairy bittercress weed (Cardamine hirsuta) is an annual spring or winter pest. The plant springs from a basal rosette and bears 3 to 9 inch (8-23 cm.) long stems. The leaves are alternate and slightly scalloped with the largest at the base of the plant. Tiny white flowers develop at the ends of the stems and then turn into long seedpods. These pods split open explosively when ripe and fling seeds out into the environment.
The weed prefers cool, moist soil and is most prolific after early spring rains. The weeds spread quickly but their appearance reduces as temperatures increase. The plant has a long, deep taproot, which makes pulling them out manually ineffective. Control for hairy bittercress is cultural and chemical.
Preventing Hairy Bittercress in the Garden
This pesky weed is small enough to hide among your landscape plants. Its extensive seed expulsion means that just one or two weeds can spread quickly through the garden in spring. Early control for hairy bittercress is essential to protect the rest of the landscape from an infestation.
Prevent invasions into turf areas by encouraging good grass growth. The weeds easily infest thin or patchy areas. Apply several inches (8 cm.) of mulch around landscape plants to help prevent seeds from getting a foothold in your soil.
Cultural Control for Hairy Bittercress
Pulling out hairy bittercress weed usually leaves the root behind. The plant will re-sprout from healthy weeds and the problem persists. You can, however, use a long slim weeding tool to dig down and around the taproot and get all the plant material out of the ground.
Mowing will achieve control over time. Do it frequently enough that you remove the flower heads before they become seed pods.
As temperatures get warmer, the plant will die naturally without having reproduced. That means fewer weeds the following season.
Chemical Hairy Bittercress Killer
Severe infestations of hairy bittercress weed will require chemical treatment. Herbicides applied post emergence need to have two different active ingredients. The ingredients must be 2-4 D, triclopyr, clopyralid, dicamba, or MCPP. These are found in broadleaf herbicide preparations known as two, three, or four-way treatments.
The higher number preparations will kill a wide range of weeds. The two-way herbicide should be sufficient for your purposes unless you have a field full of a variety of weed pests as well as the hairy bittercress weed. Apply your chosen herbicide in spring or fall.