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More Than Monarchs: The Untold Story of Milkweed

Sep 05, 2019


  • More than Monarchs

Why monarchs? While monarchs are intrinsically important, conserving monarchs matters for more than just their own protection. We’re exploring the ways that monarch habitat and conservation helps people, other wildlife and the environment in this ‘More than Monarchs’ series! Join us to learn more. 

Milkweeds and the landscapes in which they thrive are a necessity for monarchs to flourish throughout their migration routes. Did you know that milkweed is also incredibly useful and was actually an unsung hero of World War II?  

On December 7th 1941, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. At that time, the United States had not entered the War. Asia had been the supplier to the United States for kapok, a fiber used to fill life jackets. Now the kapok supply was cut off and the United States needed to find a substitute to protect our servicemen and women. 

Dr. Boris Berkman discovered that milkweed floss would act similarly and even better than kapok for life jackets. He pitched his discovery to Congress and was awarded an investment for the “Milkweed Corporation of America” located in Petosky, Michigan. 

Dr. Berkman armed school children with gunny sacks and charged them with collecting all the milkweed pods they could find to support the war effort. Over 12 MILLION pounds of milkweed pods were collected and sent by trainloads to Petosky, Michigan for processing.  

After the war, the urgency for milkweed collections subsided. Even though Dr. Berkman held over 20 patents for milkweed products and processing equipment, milkweed was again considered a weed and the company failed to shift the perception of this heroic plant from a great wartime resource to a viable crop in the marketplace. The “Milkweed Corporation of America” was sold as a concrete building and was mostly forgotten.

Milkweed, the unsung hero of World War II, is emerging again with new opportunities for communities while benefiting monarchs and all pollinators across North America. Milkweed has the potential to rise again as an important source of fiber. When you think about trainloads of milkweed pods traveling to Michigan from all over the United States and Canada, think about robust monarch habitat. If we can once again value milkweed, use our imagination and create viable products with the renewable natural resource, we can change our landscapes and benefit both monarchs and people in areas protecting monarch habitat.

The untold story of milkweed is just one example of how monarch habitat can make a difference in many ways. What are the co-benefits of monarch conservation that matter most to you? Keep following our 'More than Monarchs' series to hear more stories of what monarchs can do for us, our communities and our world.

The Monarch Joint Venture is a national partnership of federal and state agencies, non-governmental organizations, businesses and academic programs working together to conserve the monarch butterfly migration. The content in this article does not necessarily reflect the positions of all Monarch Joint Venture partners. Header photo courtesty of USDA NRCS. Backyard Lifesaver Cartoon provided by Debbie Dekleva. Article contributed by Debbie Dekleva, Monarch Flyway, for the Monarch Joint Venture Communications Working Group and NAPPC Monarch Taskforce.