Sunday, July 11, 2010

Toxic fiber?

Plans to harvest milkweed for fiber are on hold, possibly forever. A scientist at work told me the toxin for which the plant is known is found throughout the plant, so it could well be in the bast fibers this plant can produce.  If this is so, it might not be a good choice for hand preparation and the things I could make with it would be very limited.

The toxin, though dangerous for us and other mammals and birds, doesn't harm butterflies, in fact it provides a benefit. As I mentioned before, the milkweed plant is one of the monarch butterfly's choices for laying eggs. The tiny caterpillars hatch on the plant and eat it, toxin and all, grow up, spin their chrysalis and morph into this beautiful butterfly.

As a result, the butterflies themselves are toxic.  A bird who goes after a monarch butterfly who has grown on a milkweed plant is in for a nasty surprise, a very unpleasant meal which it learns to avoid.  So disgusting is this milkweed raised butterfly, that birds and other insect eaters, learn to avoid all monarch butterflies.  In fact, there are other species of butterfly and moth who look kind of like monarchs with the distinctive orange-red and black coloring. Birds will leave these alone just because they look like a monarchs.  This mimicry saves these other species from being eaten even though they may be quite tasty (from a bird's standpoint).

So much for backyard fiber.  But I'm glad I have the milkweed because of all the monarch's fluttering through my yard.  It is really quite lovely.  Perhaps I'll go look for fiber in some of my other prairie plants.

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  1. Neither did I. I'm glad I spoke with the entomologist. It would take chemical analysis to determine the level of toxin in the dried fiber.