Naturespeak A naturalist's view of the world

October 12, 2007

The Right Fluff

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 10:27 pm

   Like every other American on the home front during World War II, a young Sam Gay wanted to do his part.  “We were told to do things to help the war effort and we did them.  Our family saved fat, rubber and even the little pieces of tin foil packaging on gum sticks.  We’d bring them down to a collection point in town and that was that – we never knew whether they were used or not.”  Among the products Sam collected for his national uncle was milkweed floss. The plants flourished along the weedy edges the family farm near Rockwood and the pods yielded up their fluffy crop in October (see here).  

  Sam, along with thousands of other children, ended up contributing 11 million pounds of the stuff by war’s end.  Answering the call that “two bags save one life,” he was aware that the milkweed floss was needed to fill the life vests needed by servicemen.  This native fluff literally filled the void left when kapok, the preferred stuffing material, became unavailable due to the Japanese activities in the Pacific.  Kapok came from the Dutch West Indies.

  War products researchers hit the labs to find a suitable substitute and milkweed fibers rose to the surface.  Scientists also learned that the insulation quality of the material was superior to goose down.  Ironically, the floss was originally developed by nature to serve as parachute material.  The silky fiber tufts are meant to catch the air and transport their seeds aloft via the four winds. Packed neatly within the pods, the seeds are layered like the scales on a pine cone (see here) and are liberated for their task once the pods split open.

  Another superior stuffing product that came to light during the war was Cattail down.  Sam Gay’s farm bordered the Lake Erie shore and acres of cattails were available, but he was never prompted to collect any of them as a “war effort resource.” Today, not far from his home, cattails heads are currently changing over into their fluffy fall wardrobe. Each cattail head contains over 200,000 tiny seeds which are equipped with parachute fibers similar to those on the milkweed seeds, only in miniature (see here). Autumn winds will strip the heads of their fluffy crop and distribute the seeds over the landscape.    

  Cattail down had been used for centuries by Native Americans to line their moccasins and wrap their baby bottoms and European settlers adopted it for stuffing their dolls and quilts. It was far from a new-fangled product when called to the battlefront, but it had fallen out of use in civilized society. The U.S. Navy used cattail fibers to stuff life belts and aviation jackets – alongside milkweed fluff. The product, called “Swamp down,” was proven to maintain its buoyancy even after 100 hours of submersion.

  For a brief time in the mid 1940’s the fluff was even used commercially to fill cushions and baseballs, but the end of the war ended our national affair with this native material.  In the postwar years, synthetic fibers replaced milkweed, cattail, and the original Kapok as the primary insulation and buoyancy material.  There is at least one modern company out there attempting to commercialize milkweed fibers as a non-allergenic alternative to synthetics and waterfowl down, so the potential of such native plants has not been entirely forsaken.

  Fall is the time to recall, however, how many lives were saved by these two common plants. During a time of great need they were there to serve. “It takes an old guy like me to tell you young guys about these things,” concluded Mr. Gay.  I agree – let’s pass it on.

No Comments »

No comments yet.

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URL

Leave a comment

Powered by WordPress