Chantal Chrétien is Pontiac’s Milkweed/Monarch Lady. Here she is picking milkweed pods at La ferme des Murmures.
Retired wildlife technician Chantal Chrétien is a woman on a mission: two, actually.
First, to help save Monarch butterflies from extinction; second, to grow milkweed.
Mother of monarch butterflies
She’s made her mark on both counts. Chrétien has raised hundreds of Monarch butterflies, where she captures the caterpillars, raises them indoors until they form their chrysalis, then releases them when they’ve metamorphosized into adults.
“Monarchs have three generations every summer. The first butterflies arrive here from Mexico. Here in the Pontiac they lay their eggs and the second generation is born. They continue the cycle, where the third set of caterpillars pupate and emerge into butterflies in September: this group flies south to overwinter in Mexico, where they’ll repeat the three-stage cycle.”
Chrétien wondered what more she could do to help the butterflies at her home, La ferme des Murmures, on chemin du Lac des Loups.
She noticed her fields produce lots of milkweed, and after researching this wild plant’s uses, she decided to seed her field with it. The plants take two-three years to establish themselves prior to producing seedpods, where the floss (silk) attached to the seed is used for an ever-expanding line of products.
Although farmers are starting to crop it, others consider it a noxious weed. However, many provinces (including Québec) have removed this status for milkweed.
And she doesn’t use herbicides: “I believe in diversity. Some milkweed producers use herbicides such as glyphosate like farmers here do with their soybean crop before harvesting, but we don’t do that.”
The plant grows in two ways: seeding and extensive, deep underground
Uses for milkweed
Beyond Monarch food, milkweed is food for pollinators, and apiarists are starting to produce milkweed honey.
It’s a delicious food, where spring’s early shoots resemble asparagus as do the clusters of flower buds. Others report the tiny pods are equally delicious.
Medicinally, First Nations used it to help alleviate asthma and dysentery, and the down was used to keep babies cozy. However, Chrétien cautions that the plant can be toxic as it slows down vital organs such as the heart.
Edible Toronto’s 2017 article noted, “The oil from the seed is loaded with vitamins E and K and has a higher concentration of omega-3 fatty acids than flaxseed oil.” (bit.ly/36ekEGt).
As well, milkweed silk has been used to produce everything from clothing (Louis XV wore clothes made from it) to stuffing for life jackets in WWI. Recently, it’s been used for stuffing duvets and winter clothing – while industrial uses are under research. Milkweed is now used in car and airplane manufacturing, absorbent ropes and matts for industrial oil spills, plus acoustical insulation.
Fabric is also waterproof, meaning winter parkas give extra coziness and warmth even if the cloth becomes wet.
“One fellow climbed Everest in a suit made from milkweed. Whereas many climbers have a problem keeping warm because their sleeping bags get wet from condensation inside their tents, this milkweed-insulated garment kept him warm and dry,” noted Chrétien.
This farmer employs about 10-12 mostly local, Pontiac pickers who hand-gather pods after the morning dew has evaporated. Any plants being eaten by caterpillars or whose pods are damaged by insects, too mature – or young – are left.
Intrigued, I asked her whether she could pick Spiritwood’s milkweed pods. Yes, she could – and did, where she and one other picker picked 40 kg of pods in a few hours.
They found three Monarch caterpillars, too.
“They will fly to Mexico!” she said, beaming.
Once picked, pods are weighed and bags hung to dry, then shipped to Cowansville, for their own metamorphosis.
Natural products in demand
Although milkweed silk has been spun with polyester, a natural end-product is highly sought-after. Now, PLA (polylactic acid) created from corn fibres, is being used, and further research is underway for this promising crop.
I’ll be conducting more research into milkweed as a crop and manufactured product. Watch for Part 2.