As I ran out of the door on the way to the UK at the end of June, I snipped around 30 puffy swan-like seed pods off my large Swan Plant. I carefully placed them just inside the glass door in a sunny spot, so that they could dry out while we were away. As we drove away from the house, I had the warm sense of satisfaction that I would arrive home to perfectly dried pods, ready to be de-seeded. I would harvest enough seeds to keep me in Swan Plants – and beautiful Monarch butterflies – for many, many moons to come.
Upon my arrival home nearly a month later, I realised that this was not such a great idea after all. All of the pods had dried, burst open and thrown their white, fluffy spore around the room! Most of the black seeds had successfully been distributed across the floor in piles of ones and twos – posing a real challenge for harvesting! My rushing into the room to check on their progress made things a whole lot worse, with the breeze that followed me creating a flurry of epic proportions. The air was shot with white seed-carrying particles, making it a challenge to avoid breathing them in!
Had I realised that there was a possibility of the delicate pods bursting open, I may have done this: slit open the still wet pods; pull out the yet-to-become-fluffy spores; pick off the black seeds easily and leave them in the sunny spot to dry. That would have been the right way to harvest Swan Plant seeds!
Instead, my method of harvesting the delicate seeds was: collect the seeds that had been cast all around the floor; collect up the fluffy spores that still had seeds intact and then come up with an idea on how to contain the billowy white nightmare that had now become the room, while simultaneously picking the remaining seeds off the flighty spores.
In the end, this is what I did. I put the fluff with attached seeds into zip-lock bag and loosely tied one corner with a rubber band. Then I scrunch, scrunch, scrunched the bag until all of the seeds dropped into the corner, where I then slit the bag open to access them without the fluff. The fluff was then thrown out cleanly.
Heed my warning and do it the right way, first time! Harvest the individual seeds when the pods are still wet or, like me, you’ll find yourself flailing your vacuum cleaner pipe around the air trying to capture the nightmare of the white, fluffy Swan Plant spores!
Swan Plant and Monarch 101
Swan Plant (Asclepias physocarpa) comes from the milkweed family and seems to grow easily, whether it is from sown seed or self-seeding, into bushes or trees of up to 6ft. The plant comprises tall, sturdy thin stems with many long, narrow and green leaves. White flowers form in bunches and it is from these that the puffy green and spikey seed pods form, attached by a curvy stem which resembles a swan neck (we used to race these floating swans down the river as children!). Swan Plant attracts Monarch butterflies, which lay eggs that develop into colourful Monarch caterpillars. The caterpillars spend their relatively short lives munching their way through the Swan Plant foliage and, just before it is all gone, they either complete metamorphosis on the plant itself or on a plant nearby that provides better shelter from the elements. The caterpillar hangs upside down from its tail end, attached to the plant by silk thread. The now plump caterpillar sheds its skin from the head up to its tail, revealing a bright green and gold chrysalis underneath. In around one-to-two weeks, the chrysalis turns dark and the black, orange and white wings of the Monarch butterfly can be seen through the now translucent outer shell. The butterfly eventually emerges, dries its wings and then takes flight; leaving a dry and paper-like broken chrysalis behind. What is really interesting is that the milky sap, which the caterpillar ingested from eating Swan Plant leaves , stays within the butterfly and makes is unpalatable to predators.
Attracting Monarch butterflies into your garden by planting Swan Plants is a pure aesthetic joy, providing you with something beautiful to smile at (other than your leafy greens) and something intriguing to watch, as the transformation of your caterpillars take place. Be sure to plant more than one Swan Plant and keep a look out for plants that are overburdened with caterpillars. They sometimes benefit from being carefully transferred to a plant that still has plenty of fresh leaves for them to enjoy.