When to cut Common Milkweed pods?

Asked September 12, 2019, 8:05 AM EDT

My Common Milkweed is starting to look ratty and spent, some with yellow or brown leaves. It's in public view in my urban garden so I'd love to cut it down. But the pods are not open yet, and they are faded green & still a little spongy. I don't want to interfere with the seed production. Is it OK to cut down the stalks and keep the pods to dry out in the garage, or better to just wait a couple more weeks until the pods break open naturally and collect them then?

Last year I waited around for the orange and black bugs to show up and get to work opening the pods, and they didn't. Are they necessary to the process? I collected pods that were not completely dry. We had marginal results with those seeds taking in a field of clay with chunks of asphalt we are trying to encourage to return to meadow. I'm curious if last year's milkweed seeds might be waiting until the proper growing conditions. Because of the harsh conditions we are thinking of starting the seeds ourselves next spring and transplanting with some fertile soil. I'd like to hear your ideas about that.

Genesee County Michigan

2 Responses

The issue is whether the seeds are fully developed as yet. Cannot find a direct answer to your question because most wait until late fall/winter to cut common milkweed. If you have a lot of the plant, cut what you think you don't need, save the seeds and run your own test. You could cut at least some and I think I would wait until the pods split open for the rest. Here's one approach:

Gathering milkweed seeds

Milkweed pod seeds ©Janet Allen
Milkweed seeds in their pod

To easily collect the milkweed seeds—i.e. getting the seeds without the fluff—we collect the pod when the pod has split, and it has just begun to open rather than waiting for the seeds' little “parachutes“ to start floating all over.

Wait until you see the pod starts to show the split, though. If you open the pod before it's ready, the seeds won't be ripe.

Stripping the seeds ©Janet Allen
Stripping the seeds

Then, we just hold the end and strip off the seeds. We're left with the not-yet-fluffy fluff in one hand, and the seeds in the other (or generally in a paper bag).

If we don't get to them before they're beginning to get fluffy, we just enjoy the fluff and collect the seeds anyway. It's just a little more of a challenge to separate the seeds from the fluff.

If you're not going to be sowing the seeds right away, store them in a paper envelope or bag, not plastic.

The key advice:
Wait until you see the pod starts to show the split, though. If you open the pod before it's ready, the seeds won't be ripe.

I'll collect the pods when I see the split, then cut down the stalks.