Floss from the common milkweed plant has been tested in parkas, gloves and other cold weather gear by the Canadian Coast Guard. (Photo: Liz West/flickr)
Common milkweed is getting an image makeover. Thanks to the efforts of an unlikely combination of a visionary Canadian chemical engineer, an academic agronomist in Vermont, a group of reputation-risking U.S. and Canadian farmers and a venturesome clothing company partnership in Quebec, milkweed is showing up in the most unlikely of places — as insulation in winter clothing.
Last year, the Quartz Co. and Altitude Sports created what they are calling the world’s first insulated jacket using the floss from milkweed. Milkweed is an American genus of more than 140 known species in the genus Asclepias. When the plants are pollinated, they produce pods filled with flat brown seeds. Attached to each seed is a thread-like fluffy white material called floss. Quartz and Altitude Sports are using the floss after it is separated from the seeds.
Does the plant material work as insulation?
Definitely, say Quartz, which is located in Saint-Hyacinthe, Quebec, and Altitude Sports, located in Mont-Tremblant, Quebec. That’s because, they say, the fibers in the floss have thermal capacities that can retain heat in the presence of humidity and even when the floss is compressed in a crease. In addition, they add, the floss is lightweight, renewable and hypoallergenic.
As proof the floss-insulated jackets will keep you warm in even the most extreme conditions, the insulation was successfully tested last year during an ascent of Mount Everest. If you need more proof, they add, just ask the Canadian Coast Guard. The Coast Guard says it tested the insulation in parkas, gloves, mittens and coveralls in northern Canada.
If you’re wondering whether cold weather jackets insulated with milkweed floss are a hot idea from a consumer standpoint, Quartz and Altitude Sports have an answer for that, too. Hot enough, they say, that — while they haven't disclosed sales figures — demand has been strong enough for them to offer a second collection of milkweed-insulated jackets again this year.
From nuisance weed to cash crop
Even so, convincing farmers to grow milkweed was a tough sell at first. This was especially true because of the particular type of milkweed — Asclepius syriaca — Quartz and Altitude Sports are using for insulation. Known as common milkweed, A. Syriaca has long been thought of by farmers everywhere as a nuisance weed. It spreads aggressively through an extensive root system, crowds out other plants and produces a sap that is toxic to livestock. Historically, farmers who allowed it to grow in or beside their fields were often looked down upon as poor farmers. The plant was considered such a menace it has become the victim of eradication programs and was even declared a noxious weed in some Canadian provinces.
Francois Simard set out to change this way of thinking. Simard is a chemical engineer and the co-founder and president of Protec Style, a company in Granby, Quebec, that combines industry science and agricultural knowledge to develop technologies for all industrial sectors, mainly with natural fibers. These technologies are used to create innovative, environmentally friendly products harmless to animals.
One of the technologies Simard developed involved creating practical uses for milkweed. The first of those was to use the floss to clean up oil spills, which he has said is five times more effective than polypropylene, a petroleum derivative fiber. Then he hit on using milkweed floss as a substitute for goose down to insulate clothing. Down the road — literally — he sees milkweed floss being used as acoustic padding in cars, trucks and trains.
To grow enough milkweed plants to produce the floss needed to fulfill his vision to use it in clothing, Simard formed a cooperative of farmers in Quebec called the Monark Cooperative. The co-op takes its name from the Monarch butterfly. This butterfly is a migrating butterfly that winters in the mountains of Michoacán, Mexico. The northernmost Canadian farmers growing milkweed are north of Quebec City, which happens to be the northern tip of the Monarch migration, according to Heather Darby, an agronomist who works with the University of Vermont Extension.
Economy, ecology working together
In this case, it also happens to be the crossroads of fate, good luck and a bit of intrigue. Milkweed is the larval host plant for the Monarch butterfly. While this species of butterfly will feed on any flower that produces nectar, the various species of milkweeds are the only plants on which Monarchs will lay their eggs. Monarch populations have been in serious decline in recent years due in no small part to a loss of habitat, both through deforestation of their winter grounds in Mexico and loss of milkweed habitat along their migration routes.
Simard’s original goal in using milkweed floss for economic purposes wasn’t an ecological mission to help the Monarchs, but it’s turning out to be an unintended consequence of that effort. “There are about 2,000 planted acres of Milkweed between Vermont and Quebec,” said Darby. “I think now we have 500-600 harvestable acres,” she added, pointing out it takes three years for plants to produce a harvestable crop. Those harvestable acres may be worth $800 each this year, which would be more than Vermont farmers get for most commodities, according to one published report.
Harvesting the floss, which Simard has trademarked as Monark cavolié, doesn’t impact Monarch breeding, Darby said. “By the time of the harvesting, all the leaves have dropped from the milkweed plants,” Darby explained. "By that time, the last pupation is over and the last of the new butterflies has already left for Mexico.”
After the floss is separated from the seed, the seed goes back to the co-op, Darby said. “It takes a lot of milkweed seed to plant an acre of milkweed,” she added. Getting enough seed has been one of the projects biggest challenges.
It’s a challenge, though, that she thinks the farmers are up to meeting. “There are ecological values, the price is better than anything else and people want to buy products with milkweed in them. I think we are early enough on in production that we can make the sure the practices align well together.”
Milkweed farmers look to the future
After all, it’s worked before. In Colonial New England, for example, early settlers used the floss to stuff pillows and mattresses and carried it for tinder. During and after World War II, researchers investigated the possibility of using the floss of various species of milkweed as a replacement for "kapok" in life preservers.
And this time around?
“I think what’s so exciting is that it’s not just the opportunity for farmers to grow something that’s profitable but, on the same hand, to have such a benefit to the environment and ecology,” said Darby. “Farmers are excited about that, too.” And not just in Vermont and Canada. Farmers have been calling from Virginia, Indiana and other states about the possibility of growing milkweed as a cash crop, according to Darby. While there are no immediate plans to expand the program in the United States out of the Northeast, Darby said she wouldn’t rule that out in the future.
Darby thinks it’s consumers and not farmers who will have the final say about whether the project will be sustainable. “Consumers drive what people produce,” said Darby. “Here’s another example where consumer support can probably move this along a little faster. I think there’s an opportunity here for people to make changes with their food dollars and their fiber dollars.”
Inset: The women's Laurentia Parka, from Quartz Co. and Altitude Sports.