Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Weekly MUSE: Milkweed

Every year around this time, I get the itch to go MILKWEED hunting. Why?
Well, it all began about twenty years ago. Mrs. Hughes, my sixth grade science teacher, took us to the nature center behind our elementary school. She told us that a magical plant lived there called MILKWEED.
“What is magical about milkweed,” I had asked. “Does it grow really tall or something?”
“It grows up to six feet tall,” said Mrs. Hughes. “But that’s not what makes it so magical.”
“Does it cure the chicken pox?” asked my friend, Eric.
“I don’t think so,” said Mrs. Hughes. “Although many years ago, pioneers thought it could cure warts.”
“Awesome,” said Brandon, sticking out his thumb. “I have a wart!”
Mrs. Hughes giggled.
Just then, a beautiful black and orange butterfly fluttered over our heads and flew toward the nature center.
“Follow that butterfly,” said Mrs. Hughes.
And we did. The butterfly led us right to a milkweed patch, and Mrs. Hughes shared all she knew about her magical plant.
Twenty years later, I am still fascinated by Mrs. Hughes’ magical plant, and I’m going to share its magic with you. Creative Writers, we’ve found our MUSE!
The milkweed plant found at the Holiday Park Nature Center in Indianapolis, IN.
Milkweed grows 2-6 feet tall in fields and roadsides east of the Rocky Mountains.
If you break off a leaf, you will quickly notice a milky substance that drips from the tear. This is what makes the milkweed so magical.
A milky substance seeps from the torn leaf of a milkweed plant.
For most animals, this milky substance is poisonous – but not for the beautiful Monarch butterfly.
The Monarch butterfly lays her eggs on the underside of the milkweed’s leaves. When the eggs hatch, tiny caterpillars begin munching away at the poisonous plant. The poisons are saved within the caterpillars’ bodies, making them poisonous too! BRILLIANT!
When the caterpillars transform into butterflies, they remain poisonous, and birds know it. The orange and black colorings send a clear warning signal. “If you EAT me, you will PUKE!”
Milkweed bugs are also black, orange, and POISINOUS! Maybe everything that eats milkweed will turn black, orange and poisonous. Please don’t try this at home.
A cluster of milkweed bugs bore into a seedpod.
While I was observing the milkweed garden, I saw so many fascinating events happening on one simple plant.
On the underside of a leaf, I found a ladybug larva eating aphids. Aphids are tiny insects that suck the juices from many different kinds of plants. Take a look at the photo to see this ladybug larva.
A ladybug larva searches for aphids. The small yellowish specks are aphids.
On the top of a leaf, I found an ant trying to chase away an adult ladybug. Why? Well, the ladybug eats aphids. And the ants guard the aphids because they make a tasty substance called honeydew. Ants “milk” the aphids to get this special treat.
An ant tries to run away an adult ladybug.
I also saw a spider, a daddy-long-leg and some other neat critters.
Here are a few more fun facts about milkweed:
Milkweed produces pink to lavender flowers in the summer. These flowers eventually become warty seedpods filled with downy fluff. The seeds are attached to this fluff and are carried off into the wind like parachutes.
This milkweed "fluff" is about to sail off into the wind.
A very long time ago this downy fluff was used by Native Americans to insulate their moccasins. And during World War II, school children collected 283,000 bags of milkweed fluff to be used in military lifejackets.
If you still need to be convinced that milkweed is magical, take a look at this short video.
None of that would have been possible without the MAGIC MILKWEED! 
With this new knowledge, what kind of story could you write? Maybe these WHAT IF questions will help you get started.
WHAT IF your story’s setting was one stalk of MILKWEED and the characters were ants, aphids, ladybugs, and Monarchs?
WHAT IF a rare MILKWEED plant was found that seeped blue milk instead of white? Does it have magical qualities?  
WHAT IF your main character was a Monarch caterpillar that hatched on the wrong plant? Will he/she go searching for MILKWEED? How will he/she find it?
The possibilities are endless, and please leave your own WHAT IF questions in the comment section below. I’d love to see what you come up with.
So, grab a cup of hot cocoa, a pencil and a piece of paper, and let’s begin. With your imagination, we can go anywhere. I look forward to seeing where you take us.
With Imagination,
Professor Watermelon
The word of the week is “larva”. Here is the definition: the immature, wingless, feeding stage of an insect that undergoes complete metamorphosis.