If a plant is known to be toxic and invasive, why would anyone intentionally sow its seeds into a suburban garden? To piss off the neighbours? Unlikely. To engage in selective breeding? Possibly. But what if that plant is milkweed—a plant which by virtue of its name is a considered a weed and not a wildflower? The motivation is likely to be conservation…not for the milkweed but for the Monarch Butterfly.
The link between the two species is not immediately obvious, but it is powerful: The future of the Monarch Butterfly population literally depends upon the availability of Milkweed. These beautiful butterflies deposit their eggs on the underside of milkweed leaves and when the larvae emerge they consume the leaves of the plant. We only recognize the larvae when it becomes a caterpillar. A very hungry caterpillar can consume one milkweed leaf in five minutes as it prepares to move into its next stage—that of a pupa.
For some years now, I have dutifully collected silky seed pods from road sides and scattered them in the meadow. My learning? Milkweed is not as invasive as one might think. Other seeds lifted and cast about on the wind, such as dandelion and Scotch thistle, take root with reckless abandon amongst the fescues, goldenrod and daisies, but not Asclepias syriaca.
Last year I took a different tack. I treated the seeds with care, first scratching the earth, then setting the seeds, covering them with soil and watering them. For that effort I now have two plants in the meadow but, miraculously, have ten plants which sprouted in the gardens close to the house. These ten milkweed flowers may be the offspring of the seeds I cast upon the wind two years ago.
It is these unintentional plants that have been receiving my attention. They appear to be happy. They have settled in amongst the hydrangeas with some plants having reached a height of four feet. A few weeks ago, their cascading pink blossoms were an intoxicating fragrance, similar to that of Linden trees. Were I a butterfly, I would have been fluttering about these flowers, but there were no Monarchs to be seen.
Until the first week of August, I saw only one Monarch Butterfly this summer and that was in the middle of July. The siting was on Manitoulin Island where milkweed abounds by the roadside. That bounty had me hoping that I would experience a moment like those in my childhood when I would lie on the grass and watch a bevy of Monarchs dip and flutter above my head. Instead of unadulterated bliss, the siting of one lone butterfly made me worry.
I am not alone in that concern. Wildlife and environmental organizations have started information campaigns to engage us in protecting the Monarch Butterfly.
Habitat destruction is the primary threat and that’s a problem because the Monarchs’ habitat extends for thousands of kilometres along their migration routes. At the southern end, in Mexico and Southern California, where they overwinter, the trees in which they hibernate are being cut to create farmlands and roadways. The return trip is equally arduous. Lands that were once considered unproductive for anything other than wildflowers and Milkweed, have been turned into cornfields for ethanol production. This latter habitat loss is a sad and unintended consequence of what was thought initially to be good environmental policy.
Which brings me back to the ‘Milkweed Flowers’ in my garden. Last week I had moments of bliss as I watched two Monarchs dance amongst the ten plants. Their movement held the tension of a tango with choreographed proximity and then distance. Since then I have spotted one tiny caterpillar, but either he is not hungry (there are only a few holes in one leaf) or he became someone else’s dinner. Today I see some small white egg-like structures on another leaf and so I have hope that my plants may contribute to the development of this season’s fourth generation of Monarch Butterflies. At the very least, this year’s crop of ‘Milkweed Flower’ in my garden will provide hundreds of seeds which I will scatter on the wind and sow in the meadow.
Know anyone who wants some great weed?
Errr…I meant to say flowers.
Some resources for Monarch Enthusiasts: