Versatile Milkweed

It’s hard to think of another wild plant that that has more uses for humans than milkweed. The young leaves and shoots can be eaten in spring – they’re often referred to as “poor man’s asparagus.” This time of year, the flower buds can be harvested to make capers. Later this summer, the immature pods can be used to make a side dish that tastes somewhat like okra.

Milkweed is named for the sticky white juice in its stems and leaves, a lightly toxic, bitter latex that is neutralized when you cook it. During rubber shortages in World War II, this latex was considered as a rubber substitute; in the same period, milkweed floss was used in life vests and other gear for U.S. troops, substituting for kapok. It has been shown to be a better insulator than down.

The latex can serve as a natural bandage for wounds, owing to its quick-drying elasticity that doesn’t wash off. It serves the plant by deterring insects and grazing animals with its bitter taste, though not so much the monarch butterfly caterpillar. Contrary to popular belief, monarch caterpillars are not immune to the latex – according to research cited in the book Monarchs and Milkweed by Anurag Agrawal, about 60 percent of monarch caterpillars die when they eat it, either from toxins in the latex or because it seals their mouths shut. What’s in it for the caterpillars is that those who do survive become toxic themselves to would-be predators.

Medicinally, milkweed is used as a folk remedy to treat warts and moles. (Many folk remedies are based on the “doctrine of signatures,” which holds that plants that look like a body part can be used to treat that body part, making it no surprise that milkweed, with the wart-like projections on its fruit, has been used in this manner.)

Cherokee, Iroquois, and Rappahannock sources document its use as a laxative and diuretic; early American physicians used it to treat asthma and rheumatism, as well as for other maladies.

Its practical uses extend beyond medicine. According to Arthur Haines’ book Ancestral Plants, the stems make good cordage. The hairs attached to the seeds are also a useful tinder source.

Snapping Turtle Nest

Editor’s Note: Our friend Carolyn Haley, from East Wallingford, checked in with this Dispatch.

Two Junes ago, this turtle – or its relative – settled into a shady, moist corner of our yard. The thing is the size of a serving platter. My first thought was to be concerned about our indoor/outdoor cats, who might investigate and get their limbs snapped off.

On that first appearance, I consulted the local animal warden as well as an expert on turtles I found online. Their advice was to ignore it, and it would move on. It did. And we never saw an outbreak of mini turtles.

I dismissed the experience from my consciousness, that is until the snapper turned up the next year in the same place at the same time. And then sure enough last week, while I was bringing in the bird feeders, I saw a large lump in an open sandy area of the side yard that serves as our kitties’ natural litterbox. It was the snapping turtle, digging down into the soft dirt with both her rear legs, then pushing the sand out sideways. She was, of course, dropping eggs rather than poo.

The site is an anomaly in our heavily-trafficked yard, where four 100-foot pine trees once grew. We had them taken out a decade ago to save the house from getting crushed in a blow-down, and the area has never grown in. Hence its popularity as a litterbox. And, apparently, an incubator.

I watched her – entranced – for at least an hour. But the real-world question is: what do we do now? There’s a pile of eggs smack in the middle of a daily transit path for humans, animals, and vehicles. Should I mark it with a stick and wait to see what happens? Internet research indicates hatching could occur as late as October. By then we will have transited the patch a dozen times with a lawnmower, not to mention daily foot traffic and weekly vehicle traffic.

I cringe at the thought of potentially cat-maiming creatures erupting from the soil as the cats squat above them, lost in concentration. I also cringe at the thought of what the cats – who let’s face it, are no angels – might do to these innocent turtles when they’re interrupted.

Just another example of the endless, precarious balance between people and nature.

Editor’s Note: We checked in with our friend David Carroll about all this. Carroll is an author, illustrator, and naturalist who’s been observing, and fighting to protect, turtles for 50 years. (His memoir is entitled “Self Portrait with Turtles,” which gives you a sense of the devotion.) Here’s our email exchange:

Hi David,

. . . One of our writers filed a piece that details a snapping turtle nest that, unfortunately, is right in the middle of a heavily-trafficked part of her yard. She wants to mow. She needs to drive a vehicle through there.

What would one do if they found themselves in this situation? And if there’s an option to move the nest, what are the best practices one would follow?

Thanks for humoring the question. Your name is the first one that springs to mind when I think turtles.

Carroll Responds:

Of course the best option would be to welcome such an event and walk, drive, and work around the site; it is not such a huge area. Maybe have the compelling experience of seeing the nest hatch out. But she clearly wants her yard. Moving a snapping turtle’s nest is a real project and has to be done correctly – all eggs kept in their present position, at the same depth. Maybe she has a naturalist, biologist, herpetologist friend who might want to undertake relocation.

Mowing over the nest would do no harm, driving would not impact it if tires did not directly run over it (and maybe the nest would survive even that). Stepping on it (hardly seems necessary) would not be harmful – they lay eggs fairly deeply and usually reach back under a shelf of earth. She should know that the eggs are not likely to hatch until sometime in September, possibly into October, depending on how the summer temperatures go. Unless there are barbed wire fences along both sides of a very narrow pathway, leaving it up to fate with minimal thought beyond avoiding heavy impact or digging would seem the best route to take. I’ll show more of a bias (tilted heavily toward turtle) – what good are, how important are, lawns anyway? But then, our house insurance company has characterized our place as “overgrown” – maybe it’s time to buy a ride-on mower?

My bias aside, I am grateful that she shows concern. I hope you can make something useful out of this. Good to hear from you in any event.