Swamp Milkweed Sightings

I first learned to identify swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) in 2012 after discovering some lovely fibers near my sister’s apartment in Maryland. In 2015 I acquired some plants from Nasami Farm in Whately, MA for the Common School‘s fiber and dye plant garden at Bramble Hill Farm. For all this time, I have been keeping an eye out for it “in the wild” but haven’t seen it. Until now!

This month I have been spotting swamp milkweed all over the place. The first place I noticed it was in the bluebird field at Amherst College on July 6th. Admittedly, these photos are a bit like photos of Big Foot: blurry and indistinct. Trust me, though, it is swamp milkweed!

The next place I caught a sighting was in the Lawrence Swamp area of the Norwottuck Rail Trail in Amherst. It was right in the swamp, aptly. We could see several plants further out, but ran into the same blurry Big Foot photo problem. This one was close to the edge of the trail:

Next, I saw some plants at Bramble Hill Farm, on July 21st. These were growing in a wetland area, among the cattails:

Lastly, on July 23rd I saw a gorgeous plant right at the edge of Route 9 in Amherst, across the street from Amherst Tire:

I am thrilled to see so much swamp milkweed in so many different places nearby!

Apocynum cannabinum on the Hadley Dike

In my Fiber Fiber Everywhere post back in April, I noted that there are fiber plants all over the place where I live in Western Massachusetts. Recently I noticed a new one!

On June 26th, while walking along the dike in Hadley, I noticed a potential fiber plant that I had never noticed there before. I am pretty sure it’s Apocynum cannabinum, sometimes called common dogbane, hemp dogbane, or Indian hemp. The UMass Extension website has some helpful information for identification here. If I turn out to be wrong I will let you know. It is possible that some of the fibers I’ve seen on the trail by the river are from old dogbane stalks, and I just never realized it before.

Here’s a view of the whole plant in situ:

The flowers are white:

The stalks produce a sticky, milky latex-like sap:

The leaves are opposite and the stalks are pink:

I didn’t have a yard stick or measuring tape with me, but the tallest ones were about three feet tall. Here’s a leaf by itself:

I am pretty excited by this discovery. It is supposed to be an excellent fiber plant. As I understand it, the best time to collect the stalks is in the fall once the leaves have fallen off. I am a little worried that the edges of the dike will be mowed before the fall, so perhaps I won’t be harvesting from that spot. But now that I know what it looks like, I can look for it elsewhere.

Electra in Flower

My flax crop this year has been sorely neglected due to a pinched nerve in my upper back that had me out of commission for about 6 weeks in June and July. However, despite the weeds and lack of TLC, the flax started to bloom on the first of July. Here are some buds getting ready to flower:

Here’s the whole bed on July 1st. The main weeds are campion and lambsquarters, with lesser amounts of plantain and dock.

By July 10th the flax was in full bloom. Here are a couple photos of the flax flowers against the sky. It was a beautiful morning, and the flax flowers were gorgeous. The type I am growing this year is called Electra, and as you can see it is a blue-flowering type:

The flax plants are not really gigantically tall! I knelt down so I could frame them against the sky. Trying to photograph the flax flowers amidst all the other plants didn’t work very well. Looking at the flowers against the sky really captures their luminous beauty.

Here are two others views of the plot on July 10th. The campion is the white-flowering plant. Despite the fact that I wish there wasn’t so much of it, it is beautiful in its own right. The mix of lambsquarters and campion with the Electra blue is actually very pretty:



An interesting phenomenon that I observed in the plot is that there were fewer weeds on the eastern end, which is shaded by trees until late morning. I don’t know if this was due to something Ryan did with his cultivation last year, or if the additional shade discouraged the weeds. Without the other plants, you get a better sense of the low germination rate I got with the Electra. In the area where you can see bare ground, the only plants growing are the flax plants:

The low germination rate is due to the age of the seed. It’s from 2012. Jeff Silberman at FIT, who gave me this Electra, is growing from the same stock this year, and I gather he has had a similar rate of germination. I guess we now know the limit of viability for storing flax seed at ambient temperatures. In retrospect, when I replanted I should have put in more like thirty pounds. Live and learn!

Old Austerlitz

On Sunday July 30th I will be doing a flax processing demonstration at the Blueberry Festival at Old Austerlitz in Austerlitz, New York. I’ll be there from 9-4. Admission is $7 for adults, and children under 12 get in free. There will be lots of demonstrations and vendors, including an area dedicated to natural fibers with fiber farmers, weavers, feltmakers, etc.. Two fellow flax-enthusiasts will be there, Emily Gwynn from Hands to Work Textiles and Jill Horton-Lyons from Winterberry Farm. Stop by if you are in the neighborhood!

I haven’t been to the Blueberry Festival before, but I have been to Old Austerlitz. On September 17, 2016 I did a similar flax processing demo for their event Intersection Austerlitz. It was very fun and I met a lot of interesting people.

Here are some photos of my set-up last fall. I will have a similar display this Sunday with the same set of tools, which I own collectively with the other members of the New England Flax and Linen Study Group.

Here’s one of my display tables. In the photo below, I’m pointing to two commercially produced sticks of flax, one of which was dew-retted and the other water-retted. Retting is the decomposition process that separates the fibers from the rest of the flax stalk. Dew-retting produces a silvery gray color. Water-retting produces a pale yellow or cream color. The u-shaped bundle of fiber in front of me is some of my own home-grown and hand-processed flax (also water-retted).

Here I am demonstrating how to use a flax brake. The brake smashes up the woody material in the stalks and loosens the fibers. We are both smiling because breaking flax is really fun!

One of the reasons I enjoy doing flax processing demonstrations is that people are always so thrilled and excited to watch all the steps and to have the opportunity to try the tools.

Below I am showing the scutching board and scutching knife. Scutching (or swingling) removes more of the woody pieces and opens up the fibers.

Here I am hetcheling (or hackling or hatcheling). This step separates the short fibers from the long fibers, and aligns all the fibers in the same direction. The short fibers are called tow and the long fibers are called line.

Below, I’m showing the difference between tow and line. I’m holding some tow (well, it’s pretty long for tow, but short for line), while the long line fibers are draped over the hetchel:

And here I am showing what the ideal growth habit of a fiber flax plant looks like: a tall, straight stalk with no branches until the very top.

See you on Sunday at Old Austerlitz!