Milk Weed Seed Pod

Learn what to do with the milkweed pods found on plants at the end of the season. Harvest and save the seeds for late fall or winter sowing. NH Fish & Game and UNH Cooperative Extension are calling on New Hampshire residents for milkweed pod collections!

Milkweed pods: How to collect and harvest milkweed seeds

Growing up, finding milkweed pods on a woodland walk was like stumbling across buried treasure. I would delightedly open the pods to reveal the silky bounty and then toss those soft strands in the air to watch them float away in the wind. Attached to those strands are milkweed seeds.

I’ve long since learned the value of milkweed plants to monarch populations. They are the only larval host plant where monarch butterflies will lay eggs, and a food source for those hungry monarch caterpillars. The variety I’d stumble across as a child would have been Common milkweed, ubiquitous in sunny areas at the edge of forests, throughout hydro corridors, and along roadsides. For many years, those growing locales were in decline. And Common milkweed was once on my province’s noxious weeds list! Luckily it’s since been removed, as the importance of growing milkweed for the monarch species’ survival has been so well conveyed to the public.

Common milkweed pods are easy to find and forage. If you don’t care to save the seeds, in late fall you can shake out the silk, allowing the seeds to float away. The cold weather of winter will allow them to go through the necessary stratification process. And next year, you just may find some new plants in your garden.

North America is home to over 100 species of milkweed, but only about a quarter of them have been identified as being host plants for monarch butterflies. If you’d like to plant your own milkweed seeds, the best thing you can do is source the pods from the area in which you live. Check with your local environmental or monarch organizations to see if you can find any documentation and photos of milkweed that commonly grow in your region.

Identifying milkweed pods

Three milkweeds that are prevalent throughout North America are Butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa), common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca), and swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata).

Common milkweed is probably the easiest to find. Just look for a dry area , like a ditch . Where I live, I see it along my local rail trail, and at the sunny edges of forests where I mountain bike. The pods are pretty easy to spot in a landscape, especially towards the fall as other plants die back. It’s hard to describe the shape of the pods, but they’re basically conical or horn-shaped (but the cone part is at both ends). The pods are usually pointing upwards.

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And apparently they’re tasty! Milkweed seed pods are edible. On her Backyard Forager website, Ellen Zachos, author of The Forager’s Pantry: Cooking with Wild Edibles shares some milkweed recipes, including one for deep fried milkweed pods.

If you see milkweed pods while on a walk, make sure you’re able to identify the variety, so you know what you’re bringing back to your garden. This is Common milkweed, which is native to my region.

If you’re going to forage, it’s important that you don’t take milkweed pods from someone’s property without asking first. (Trust me, I’ve been tempted!) They may be saving those pods for their own garden. And as is common practice with any foraging, don’t take all the pods from one area. Leave some pods to naturally open and reseed themselves.

Butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa), which was named the Perennial Plant of the Year by the Perennial Plant Association in 2017, is native to Ontario, where I live, as well as Quebec and much of the United States.

How do you know milkweed pods are ready to pick?

Milkweed pods are usually ready to pick in late summer, into early October and even November. And they don’t all ripen at once! To collect seeds, it’s easier if you get to the pods before they split. The seed pod will start to dry out, eventually splitting open on its own. While some pods may start to turn brown, a milkweed pod could still be green, but be ready to harvest.

If the center seam pops open from gentle pressure , the pod is ready to pick. If it doesn’t open by pressing gently, it’s not yet ready.

Ripe seeds are brown in color. White, cream, or pale-colored seeds are not ready to be harvested.

It’s easier to collect milkweed seeds—and separate them from the silk—if you get to the pods right before they split open. Ripe seeds are brown.

What to do with your milkweed pods

Once you’ve pried open the pod, grab the center stalk from the pointed end, and gently tear it away. You may want to hold your pod over a container to catch any extra seeds. Holding the end of that stalk, you can gently pull the seeds off the milkweed silk. Slide your thumb down as you go, so the silk doesn’t come loose.

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If you’re not going to collect seeds from your pods right away, avoid leaving them wet in plastic bags. Unwanted moisture can lead to mold. Separate the seeds as soon as possible.

There are other ways to remove the seeds from the silk that involve vacuums and DIY contraptions (you can find info on the Xerces Society website). Another recommendation if you find a milkweed pod that’s split, is to put the fluff and seeds in a paper bag with a few coins. Give the bag a good shake. Then, snip a hole in the corner of the bottom of the bag to pour out the seeds.

Some milkweed pods can hold over 200 seeds inside!

There are three things you can do with milkweed pods that are ready to harvest:

  1. Leave them on the plant and let nature do its thing
  2. Open the pods and scatter the seeds in the late fall
  3. Save the seeds to plant in the winter

Storing milkweed seeds

To store your seeds, make sure they are completely dry. Then, put them into a sealed jar or Ziploc bag in the refrigerator until winter when you’re ready to plant them.

Jessica’s article on how to grow perennial milkweeds from seed provides all the details for late autumn or early winter sowing.

Milkweed pests that damage the seeds

There are a few insect pests that enjoy milkweed, such as the large milkweed bug (Oncopeltus fasciatus) and the small milkweed bug aka common milkweed bug (Lygaeus kalmia). The nymphs have a needle-like mouthpart that pierces the milkweed pod, and sucks the juice out of the seed, rendering them un-plantable.

Adult red milkweed beetles (Tetraopes tetrophthalmus) are herbivores, feeding on the leaves, stems, and seed pods of milkweed plants.

The common or small milkweed bug looks VERY similar to the boxelder bug. However it’s not a huge threat to monarchs, even though it eats milkweed seeds.

Don’t worry about eliminating them all. In fact it’s recommended that you leave milkweed bugs be as part of your local eco-system. Try planting more milkweed throughout different parts of your garden to provide more food.

This milkweed pod and the seeds inside have been damaged by milkweed bugs. You can see a healthy, untouched pod, from the same plant, in the background.

Another threat to milkweed plants is the Japanese beetle (Popilla japonica). They feed on the flowers, preventing the plants from forming seedheads at the end of the season. If you see these insects on your milkweeds, a bucket of soapy water will take care of them.

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Milk Weed Seed Pod

NH Fish & Game and UNH Cooperative Extension are calling on New Hampshire residents for milkweed pod collections!

The seeds from the milkweed pods will be sown by NH Department of Transportation into conservation corridors, designated areas along highways that are planted with native perennials to benefit pollinators.

While milkweed serves as a food source for many other species of pollinator, it is the exclusive host plant on which Monarch butterflies lay their eggs, and on which caterpillars feed. The disappearance of milkweed across the US has contributed to an 80% decline in the eastern Monarch butterfly population over the last 20 years. State and federal agencies, conservation organizations, and others are working diligently to increase the volume of milkweed on the landscape, and individuals can help by contributing to this important resource collection effort.

Collecting Milkweed Pods

  • Only collect the pods when they are dry and grey/brown. If the center seam pops with gentle pressure, they can be harvested.
  • Store the pods in paper bags; plastic bags will collect unwanted moisture.
  • Write the date and county collected on the bag.
  • Keep the pods in a cool, dry place until you deliver them to the collection site.
  • Leave some pods (25%) on the plants to also allow for natural dispersal.

Milkweed Seeds not ready for collection.

Milkweed seeds ready for collection.

Collection Bin Locations

Collection bins can be found at the following locations throughout New Hampshire. Unless noted otherwise, bins are located outside the front door to the building.

Boscawen – UNH Extension Merrimack County Office, 315 Daniel Webster Highway

Brentwood – UNH Extension Rockingham County Office, 113 North Road

Concord – NH Fish & Game Headquarters, 11 Hazen Drive

Conway – UNH Extension Carroll County Office, 73 Main Street

Dover – Dover Public Library, 73 Locust Street

Goffstown – UNH Extension Hillsborough County Office, 329 Mast Road Room, [Bin located inside building, inside entry door to Extension office – Room 101]

Keene – Historical Society of Cheshire County, 246 Main Street, [Bin located next to back door to the building, which is the main entrance]

Newport – UNH Extension Sullivan County Office, 24 Main Street

North Haverhill – UNH Extension Grafton County Office, 855 Dartmouth College Highway