A gauzy autumn blizzard begins

One bright day recently, I glanced out the window and saw that at last the milkweed plumes were flying away from my meadow. I hurried out to see the show. All summer long I had watched milkweed go through its unique but quirky routine. This was the last and best act.

The show starts with strange green wormy-looking buds, alleged to be edible, growing on tall stalks filled with sticky milk-white sap. Next come rose-colored flowerlets that join forces, pretending to be one big flower to attract attention.

They are a success, attracting all kinds of small fliers: honeybees and bumblebees, dragonflies, assorted butterflies. The whole meadow is alive and hums with their doings.

Monarchs are latecomers; their handsome orange-and-black wings make a zingy contrast to the gentle rose color of the flowerlets.

People retain their same basic shape as adults, except for the addition or subtraction of poundage. Not so with milkweed flowers. They are transformed into gondola-shaped seedpods. Quite a slippery trick.

Each pod, when it pops open, releases about 50 flat brown seeds. Each seed is equipped with a neat little clump of white silky strands, like plumes, to catch the breeze and carry them far from home.

All along the path and in the meadow were open pods, their white plume material in disarray, shining in the sunlight like Marilyn Monroe's hair after a shampoo.

I reached out and plucked a clump - as soft and warm as the fur of an angora kitten. I held a plume-with-seed to the sunshine. The plume, transparent, caught the color of my bright red cloak and the blue of the sky, yet it was also white. The seed, glued neatly to the ends of the plume, fell to the ground when I gave it a gentle shake.

I sat down on a small green bench beside my berry patch in the middle of the meadow. The show was on. Wind was blowing, and the pines and maples on the edge of the meadow sang along with it, bending and swaying. Up by the house, my flag lifted and tugged at its rope.

It wasn't a steady wind, and the plumes floated at the will of the wind, sometimes fast, sometimes slow. Sometimes they drifted, just clearing the tops of the faded goldenrod, sometimes they soared in the air, up to the highest branches of 80-foot pines and the edge of the meadow, where they vanished in caverns of dark branches. One plume came right at my face and changed course, just missing me.

As I sat there, the wind increased and the plumes moved along faster and faster. My flag snapped to life, flat out, quivering. One big gust, and plumes shot up in streams from all the stalks at once, filling the air, an autumn blizzard. Up and up, white fireworks, the air full of swirling white softness obedient to the intricate currents of the air shaking loose those small cinnamon-brown seeds.

Ancient high tech!

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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