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Winter Weeds: Common Milkweed In late fall when I’m hiking near fields and roads I often see plants with big seed pods and white fluff tumbling out. The plants are milkweed but they look quite There?s a hitchhiker lurking in your car right now and you don?t even know it. Fortunately, it?s not the kind that might end up on the nightly news, but it?s almost as bad where the ecosystem is concerned. Learn more about hitchhiking weeds in this article. Hairy bittercress is an annual weed that can spread quickly.

Winter Weeds: Common Milkweed

In late fall when I’m hiking near fields and roads I often see plants with big seed pods and white fluff tumbling out. The plants are milkweed but they look quite different from their summer appearance.

Common milkweed is a conspicuous perennial in winter because its large, warty, seed pods stand high on three to five foot stems.

The pods are fat at the bottom, pointed at the top and split open on their long edge to reveal soft, silky fluff carefully layered inside. Each wad of silk is attached to a flat, brown seed.

When exposed to the weather the silk becomes fluffy and eventually flies off the plant, carrying its seed cargo as far as it will go. The pods stand high to send their bounty on the wind.

To me one of the great mysteries of milkweed is that it looks so different in winter. In summer it’s weighed down with large, drooping, pink flower umbels but now the pods stick up alone and there are far fewer of them than the number of flowers in the umbel. I have read that only one flower in each milkweed umbel produces a seed pod. (Do any of you know how this works?)

Common milkweed is a great plant for attracting monarch butterflies to your garden. If you already have milkweed you can leave the stems standing over the winter and watch where the seeds fly.

When you’re ready to clear them away in the spring, Marcy Cunkelman suggests you save the dried stems and put them out in mid-April for the birds to use as nesting material. The fibers are strong and peel off in strips. They’re quite a favorite of Baltimore orioles.

(photo by Marcy Cunkelman)

3 thoughts on “ Winter Weeds: Common Milkweed ”

I like milkweed, enjoyed looking for the plant. When I was in 3rd(Now here goes telling people “I am old”) our school was brought truckloads of burlap sacks to fill with milkweed pods because they were used to fill the vests the WW II GIs wore. We were all so proud doing it. This was when I lived in Gibsonia & one of the buildings you now see in a St. Barnabas Senior Community in Richland Twp. is actually our old grade school (talk about recycling!!). We had a chart in each classroom & I don’t know what the winner got, I suppose a party or something. So I always have fond memories about the milk weed. However, I did not know that the seeds were not in every pod. Some of these weeds are what keep winter in the woods interesting it seems. Everything for a purpose if only to enjoy.

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I will look for pods in my fields to save for nesting material in April. Always enjoy your posts — the dried milkweed photo is great — barbara

I love milkweed too!

It smells great when the blossoms bloom. Also, when in bloom they attract a great variety of insects, bees, butterflies and the like. Monarchs and other insects make it their home for the summer season. Also, note, raising Monarch butterflies is great fun for kids and us adults too. And then, like Kate describes, gathering the silky pods in late fall for the birds in the spring for nesting material is an added bonus. So much to enjoy from a simple weed and it cost only some time.

That is the best thing about nature. It cost so little to enjoy so much. Everyday a great film is being played right outside your door. Every season brings a newly released feature film. Make some popcorn if you like and enjoy. Enjoy my friends, enjoy!

Seeds That Stick To Clothing: Different Types Of Hitchhiker Plants

Even now, they’re lingering along the roadside waiting for you to pick them up and take them wherever you’re going. Some will ride inside your car, others on the chassis, and a few lucky ones will find their way into your clothing. Yes, weeds that spread by people, or hitchhiking, have certainly taken advantage of you this year. In fact, the average car carries two to four seeds for hitchhiker plants at any given time!

What are Hitchhiker Weeds?

Weed seeds spread in a variety of ways, whether traveling by water, air, or on animals. The group of weeds nicknamed the “hitchhikers” are seeds that stick to clothing and fur, making it difficult to dislodge them immediately. Their variously barbed adaptations ensure that the seeds will travel far and wide via animal locomotion, and most can be eventually shaken off down the road somewhere.

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Although it might sound like all fun and games, the weeds spread by people are not only difficult to contain, but they’re also costly for everyone. Farmers lose an estimated $7.4 billion each year in productivity to eradicate these pest plants. Humans are spreading these seeds at a rate of 500 million to one billion seeds a year in cars alone!

Although the weeds within crop stands are annoying, those that appear in fields can be downright dangerous for grazing animals like horses and cattle.

Types of Hitchhiker Plants

There are at least 600 weed species that travel by hitchhiking with humans or on machines, 248 of which are considered noxious or invasive plants in North America. They come from every kind of plant, from herbaceous annuals to woody shrubs, and occupy every corner of the world. A few plants you might be familiar with include the following:

  • “Stick-tight” Harpagonella (Harpagonella palmeri)
  • “Beggerticks” (Bidens) (Krameria grayi) (Tribulus terrestris) (Opuntia bigelovii) (Torilis arvensis) (Symphyotrichum lateriflorum) (Arctium minus) (Cynoglossum officinale) (Cenchrus)

You can help slow the spread of these hitchhikers by carefully inspecting your clothing and pets before emerging from a wild area full of seeding plants, making sure to leave those unwanted weeds behind. Also, reseeding disturbed areas like your garden plot with a cover crop can ensure that there’s too much competition for hitchhikers to thrive.

Once those weeds emerge, digging them out is the only cure. Make sure to get 3 to 4 inches (8-10 cm.) of root when the plant is young, or else it’ll grow back from root fragments. If your problem plant is already flowering or going to seed, you can clip it at the ground and carefully bag it for disposal – composting will not destroy many of these types of weeds.

Last, but not least, check your car any time you’ve been driving on unpaved roads or through muddy areas. Even if you don’t see any weed seeds, it wouldn’t hurt to clean your wheel wells, undercarriage, and any other location where seeds might be hitching a ride.

Hairy bittercress: A weed to watch out for

Hairy bittercress is an annual weed that can spread quickly.

Flowers and seed pods of hairy bittercress. Photo by Lori Imboden, MSU Extension.

Have you recently noticed plants with small, white flowers on the edges of your lawn, flowerbeds and rock pathways? During April and May, populations of the winter annual weed hairy bittercress (Cardamine hirsuta) become increasingly visible. Hairy bittercress has a low growing rosette similar in form to a dandelion. It raises its profile in early spring with the appearance of flowers and seeds on a vertical stem. Like many members of the mustard family, hairy bittercress sets seed prolifically. It grows quickly and a few plants or seeds can generate a more widespread infestation in even a year’s time.

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The first true leaves of hairy bittercress are heart shaped. Photo by Erin Hill, MSU.

Hairy bittercress is a winter annual weed. Its seeds germinate in fall beginning as early as September. The first true leaves are heart-shaped, followed by compound leaves with two or more pairs of leaflets and a kidney shaped terminal leaflet. The leaves that emerge in the fall form a small rosette that will overwinter. Once the weather warms in spring, it sends up stalks of small, white flowers followed by slender seed pods known as siliques.

Hairy bittercress leaves have two or more pairs of leaflets and a kidney shaped terminal leaflet. Photo by Lori Imboden, MSU Extension.

Once the seed pods ripen, disturbing the pods can propel the seeds as far as 16 feet from the mother plant. This seed dispersal adds to the soil seed bank and primes the area for another infestation to emerge in early fall. After setting seed, the life cycle is complete and the plants die. Hairy bittercress and other winter annual weed species, like common chickweed and purple deadnettle, are not typically present during the summer months.

Once the seed pods ripen, disturbing the pods will send the seeds flying as far as 16 feet. Photo by Lori Imboden, MSU Extension.

Hairy bittercress is best managed mechanically when it is young. Remove it by hand, hoe or tillage in early fall or early spring before it sets seed. If plants are flowering, composting is discouraged as seeds may develop. To manage this weed using herbicides, the proactive approach would be to use a pre-emergence herbicide in the late summer (late August to early September) to target the plants at the time of germination and prevent successful emergence.

If plants have already emerged, applying a post-emergence herbicide to actively growing plants before seedpods form may be effective. If using an herbicide, be certain it contains an active ingredient that will target this weed. Always read and follow all labeled instructions to increase effectiveness and prevent personal or environmental harm.

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