Portraits of Wildflowers

Perspectives on Nature Photography

Pearl milkweed pod

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Pearl Milkweed Pod Split Open 2371

While walking along Bull Creek parallel to the east side of Loop 360 on August 8th I noticed a pearl milkweed vine (Matelea reticulata) with several pods, all of which had split open and were coming apart to about the same degree as this one.

In a recent post showing a feather we talked about iridescence: notice in today’s picture how some of the milkweed silk iridesces as it loosens its way out into the sunlight. Yes, the verb iridesce exists, even if it’s not common. There’s a time for the uncommon as well as for the commonplace. That said, milkweed pods releasing their contents always strike me as out of the ordinary.

© 2014 Steven Schwartzman

Written by Steve Schwartzman

August 29, 2014 at 5:57 AM

36 Responses

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  1. I see that opalesce is a synonym for iridesce and indeed the milkweed silk does exhibit a play of colors like that of an opal.


    August 29, 2014 at 6:24 AM

    • That’s a coincidence, because when I was checking to make sure that people still use iridesce as a verb, I also came across opalesce as a synonym. Now if I could only sell some of these milkweed pods for the same amounts of money that similarly sized opals fetch, I’d get rich. But reality intervenes and says my wealth will stay largely that of pictures.

      Steve Schwartzman

      August 29, 2014 at 6:35 AM

      • And if the silk could be harvested that would add to your riches too. Apparently common milkweed silk can be used as an alternative to down. I couldn’t find anything about pearl milkweed silk.


        August 29, 2014 at 6:44 AM

        • I don’t know that pearl milkweed silk is significantly different from the silk of other milkweeds. I do know that during World War II, when the American military couldn’t get kapok fibers to fill life jackets and life savers because the Japanese had cut off the supply from Asia, American schoolchildren were sent out into nature to find and harvest milkweed pods for their silk.

          Steve Schwartzman

          August 29, 2014 at 6:53 AM

  2. I’m always amazed by how efficiently nature packs a whole lot into very small spaces. In this case, it’s seeds and fluff: pretty, fun to play with, and good classroom fodder. I remember a grade school science project that involved opening milkweed pods and counting the number of seeds. I don’t remember measuring the pods, but comparing the length of the pod and the number of seeds could have been interesting.

    I can’t imagine how many milkweed pods would be needed to fill even a single life jacket. There must have been a whole lot more milkweed in those days.


    August 29, 2014 at 7:31 AM

    • Let’s hope the schoolkids were as efficient at finding milkweed pods as nature is in packing them with seeds and fluff. They must have been—right?—because we won the war. And you’re right that there was a lot more milkweed 75 years ago than there is now. The decline has increased in recent years as milkweed habitat has been lost due to development. And then there’s the boondoggle ethanol subsidy that has led agribusiness to devote as much land as possible to corn (from which ethanol can be made). Here’s an article that summarizes the situation in its second paragraph:


      Steve Schwartzman

      August 29, 2014 at 8:05 AM

  3. Absolutely stunning and interesting to see this splitting and releasing the content so close! Love how the sunlight playing on the silk, is beautiful!


    August 29, 2014 at 10:48 AM

  4. There is a lot of beautiful optics and physics in iridescence. I always enjoyed the demonstrations of their examples in class. Thin films such as soap and bubbles are good ones. It’s interference.

    Jim in IA

    August 29, 2014 at 11:11 AM

  5. Stunning photo – I love how details are revealed with close-up shots and your photos always reveal some amazing features that we might miss otherwise!


    August 29, 2014 at 11:53 AM

    • That’s why I do so much macro photography. In nature I often find more intrigue in the world of the small than in the world of the large (though if I lived in a scenic place like Yellowstone or Yosemite the balance might shift).

      Steve Schwartzman

      August 29, 2014 at 12:00 PM

  6. Yes, milkweed, which is abundant in my gardens, has clever seedpods that scatter seeds with wisps of silken threads that hold the seeds.


    August 29, 2014 at 8:36 PM

    • It’s good to hear you have abundant milkweeds, Sally. Some people in Austin have been collecting and distributing milkweed seeds for others to plant.

      Steve Schwartzman

      August 29, 2014 at 8:45 PM

  7. That is such a rich and engaging photo…The detail you captured really creates a narrative.

    Charlie@Seattle Trekker

    August 30, 2014 at 1:24 AM

    • I’m happy to have drawn you in with this narrative, Charlie. Milkweeds always draw me in, too.

      Steve Schwartzman

      August 30, 2014 at 8:12 AM

  8. Milkweed seeds have long captured my imagination. I was delighted to learn, not long ago, that in some parts of the UK they refer to the free ones floating on the breezes as “fairies.” Isn’t that wonderful?!


    August 30, 2014 at 9:54 AM

    • I hadn’t ever heard of milkweed being called fairies, so thanks for letting us know. Both things captivate the imagination.

      Steve Schwartzman

      August 30, 2014 at 11:33 AM

  9. Your milkweed pods are a bit advanced from ours……still tight and firm, but we are not far from the autumnal equinox and they will be popping after that. As Linda pointed out above, the way the seeds are perfectly packed into the pod is a marvel of nature.
    I love finding the shimmer of iridescence or the prismatic in nature. See the 2nd and third: http://sggphoto.wordpress.com/2011/01/02/01-01-11-bears-den-and-ice-sculptures/

    Steve Gingold

    August 30, 2014 at 5:52 PM

    • I see what you mean about prismatic ice in your pictures. We photographers in central Texas live mostly in a world of summer and therefore get many fewer chances to play with ice. I’m generally thankful for that lack of cold, but it forecloses some possibilities that you’ve taken good advantage of.

      You and Linda are certainly right about the marvelous way milkweed seeds get packed into their pods. The closest I’ve come to showing that so far is:


      Steve Schwartzman

      August 30, 2014 at 6:02 PM

      • Nice example, Steve. I have a nice view of one pod with them all stacked and lined up like the little paratroopers that they are, but I don’t believe I’ve posted it anywhere so I can’t link it for you. I’ll try to do a milkweed pod post this autumn and remember to share it or one like it then.

        Steve Gingold

        August 30, 2014 at 6:21 PM

  10. Sorry to be so late … I’ve been out of town for a bit. What has struck me most about this image is how far ahead of us you are down ‘there.’ Our Milkweed has get its pods but they have not yet begun to dry off. I’m guessing we’ve got 4-6 weeks more for that much anticipated occurrence. D

    Pairodox Farm

    August 31, 2014 at 6:42 PM

    • It seems to vary with the kind of plant. The milkweeds down here may be ahead of yours, but I believe you’re getting goldenrod flowers in parts of the north while the ones in central Texas probably won’t start flowering till a month from now. Even within our region, though, I’ve observed variations from year to year, with species not infrequently flowering a month before or after their average time. In the most extreme cases I’ve occasionally found a species flowering a full six months out of sync, which of course is the maximum possible.

      Steve Schwartzman

      August 31, 2014 at 7:17 PM

  11. Amazing!

    Tania Kanda

    October 11, 2014 at 1:49 AM

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