By Helga Skinner
I was introduced to milkweed by a neighbor who was trying to help me find photography subjects. She showed me the plant, a tall stalk with two leaves across from one another at the same height every so many inches. It had simple lines, and red veins down the center. The next time I walked by the milkweed it had a cluster of little blossoms that were open. The blossoms were covered with all kinds of insects and it smelled very, very good. However, even that day I was not excited; too many bugs in the way to make a beautiful shot. There were actually three umbels: the first was open, the second would open later and the third was smaller yet, and would open much later. The beetles crawling on the plants were orange and black and fun to photograph. They held still, and at times I felt they were really looking at me.
It wasn’t until October after a cold night of frost that I noticed the big, rough looking pod. It had opened, and what looked like silk was hanging out of it. That day I fell in love with the Milkweed!!! I broke the pod off and brought it home. The warm air inside the house helped dry out the seeds and the silk that was keeping them attached to the pod. What a beautiful, beautiful sight! I was drawn to the delicate seeds and their silken, flowing strands.
I looked up the milkweed and found that there are many varieties. I had the common one. The milkweed is vital to the Monarch butterfly. The caterpillars need to have the milkweed to eat and grow. After taking many pictures of this pod and winning many awards for the images I took, I decided to share the beauty with everyone by making notecards of the pictures and placing seeds in the cards so that the recipient could plant them. It wasn’t until a year later I found that the milkweed is becoming scarce and there is a push to find areas to replant them, so the butterflies have a place to lay their eggs. Now I am really on a mission.
I planted milkweed in a large planter. I photographed it from seedling to mature plant with its umbel (stems that hold the individual blossoms forming a ball). I also photographed the insects that live off of it, such as the milkweed bug. I am hoping for a lot of butterflies this year and now have twenty plants, a colony actually. Last year I actually kidnapped caterpillars from my girlfriend’s plants and put them on mine! I am sure people would have chuckled if they had watched me do it. This year I added Butterfly Milkweed, from another friend’s yard, to my collection. My next milkweed is going to be the Red Ring if I can find it. It has a white blossom with red center ring.
Photographing these pods took many attempts. I tried to bring out the softness and lightness of the seed with the coma (the silky white strands), and tried to show it blowing in the wind. It took me months to get the effects right but it was well worth it. I have had several teachers along the way. I took a class from Bill Miller in the Cookeville Camera Club on how to use my camera, and later I took his class on the software program Adobe Lightroom, which is used for organizing and post-processing images. I have a personal coach to lead me where I need to be with my subjects and lots of good photographer friends to suggest things. The Cookeville Camera Club is great for anyone who would like to take pictures, regardless of the type of camera and equipment they have. The club has been instrumental in my progress. I am the president of the club this year and welcome anyone to join our group.
I will be selling cards and pictures at Fall Fun Fest and Santa’s Workshop. You can email me year round to order cards and prints, or just to talk about milkweed. I mail and deliver, and you can reach me at email@example.com and (931) 261-9393.