Learn how kudzu took hold in the U.S. and how to identify and control an outbreak if it invades your landscape. – Preen 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
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The “Weed that Ate the South” Is Heading North
Kudzu can be identified by its lobed leaves that grow in three-leaf clusters. When flowering, it produces reddish-purple flower spikes which mature into flat, brown, 2-inch-long seed pods. iStock / Getty Images Plus
Kudzu – that vining weed that earned the nickname the “vine that ate the South” for its vigorous spread in warm-weather states – is expanding into new areas. Warming temperatures and the weed’s prolific ability to spread has increased kudzu’s range to Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan, and New York, including as far north as the Canadian shore of Lake Erie. It’s also spread westward from Mississippi and Alabama into Texas.
Few plants have the incredible growth power of kudzu (Pueraria). Under ideal growing conditions, it can grow nearly a foot a day and 60 to 100 feet in a season. The plant sends down large tap roots, its crowns can send up as many as 30 vining shoots, and its leaves have the ability to mine growth-enhancing nitrogen directly from the air. Kudzu spreads by seed but mainly by rooting where its stems touch the ground.
Kudzu is an invasive vine that grows fast and covers everything, eventually killing many native species. iStock / Getty Images Plus
Kudzu first came to the United States from eastern Asia as a promising specimen at the U.S. Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia in 1876. It was introduced in the South seven years later at the New Orleans Exposition. The plant quickly caught on for several of its redeeming qualities. Cattle farmers used the high-protein, fast-growing leaves and stems as livestock feed. The Civilian Conservation Corps and others planted it widely in the first half of the 20 th century for erosion control. And southern-states home gardeners bought kudzu as an ornamental vine that quickly shaded porches. Besides the dense habit of the green foliage, kudzu produces attractive arching spikes of purple flowers in late summer.
By the 1950s, ecologists realized that kudzu was doing too well for its own good. It was choking out native vegetation, overspreading and killing even tall trees, and pulling down power lines. The U.S. Department of Agriculture reclassified kudzu as a weed in 1970, and efforts since have been to slow or eliminate it instead of plant it.
Kudzu can be identified by its lobed leaves that grow in three-leaf clusters and have tiny hairs on their undersides. The reddish-purple flower spikes mature into flat, brown, 2-inch-long seed pods.
An outbreak of kudzu is best stopped by digging out all rooted pieces when the plant is young. Repeated cutting or mowing to the ground also can weaken an existing stand of it. Several spray herbicides are effective at killing kudzu, although repeated applications over several years might be needed to get rid of it completely.
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!