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Today, milkweed plants are often cultivated by nature lovers seeking to attract monarch butterflies. But in World War II, these native wildflowers were sought out for an entirely different reason. Milkweed pods contain silky floss that is both waterproof and buoyant, making it ideal filler for the life preservers relied upon by American sailors and airmen.
Normally, life preservers contained fibers from the seeds of the tropical kapok tree, but Japanese control of the Dutch East Indies prevented access to this material, forcing the U.S. Government to look for alternative sources of filler. The native milkweed was a viable alternative but it required approximately 1,200 to 1,600 milkweed pods to provide enough floss to make one life jacket.
In September 1944, around the time when milkweed pods normally start to ripen, the Winchester Evening Star published a message from the Frederick County USDA War Board encouraging “everyone possible” to take part in harvesting the pods.
To harvest the floss, ripened and pest free milkweed pods had to be picked and placed in mesh onion bags and hung out to dry for two to five weeks. Once thoroughly dry, they were sent to the companies who were manufacturing life vests.
Collecting the pods was an easy enough task that it could be done by children. Schools, Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, 4-H clubs, and other youth organizations promoted and organized milkweed pod harvests as part of the war effort. Overall, Americans collected enough milkweed pods to make 1.2 million life vests.
Source: “Milkweed Pod Collection Starts,” Winchester Evening Star, September 9, 1944; Clark, Patterson, “Pods of Plenty,” Washington Post, September 25, 2012.