Save the Monarchs, Spread the Milkweed

monarch_butterflies

I’m one of those people who need to explore my surroundings, so when I found myself in Pacific Grove, California, for a conference, I couldn’t leave without visiting the Monarch Sanctuary. This was especially necessary because the monarchs are “wintering” in California right now. I wasn’t about to give up a chance to see thousands of monarchs hanging out together! Plus, I’ve heard all the dire warnings about the reduction of the monarch population and had to see for myself what was going on. Was it hype? Or was it real?

I arrived around 10 a.m. and saw…nothing. OK, I saw one tiny monarch flitting about like it was a bit drunk. The sanctuary itself is also kind of…sad. Its entrance is between a motel and some garbage cans. It’s very small, and surprisingly, there was no gift shop! I thought back to when I researched the place on the Web and recalled that it was very hard to find. Hmmm…

Undaunted, I drove downtown to the Pacific Grove Museum of Natural History, where I asked what was going on. “Oh, they are there. If you go back at noon there is a docent who will show them to you. They can be hard to see.” But, I asked, was the population declining? “Absolutely,” she said. The current population was only a quarter of what it was just 10 years ago, she added. I asked what she attributed it to and she said “urban growth, habitat loss, lack of milkweed.” What about agricultural chemicals? I asked. “Oh, that’s more of an East Coast problem,” she said.

I thought back to my two-hour drive to Sacramento where there were no weeds period—let alone any milkweed. Surprisingly, the gift shop at the museum was also kind of sad. What a missed opportunity to raise money and awareness. Who is the champion of the monarch other than those who used to dress up as monarchs during the very early Monsanto protests? What happened to them? Were they also killed by GMOs? I’m sure they got laughed at and made fun of. But is anyone laughing now? Surely not the butterflies.

So I went back at noon, and sure enough, I did see the tree where the monarchs were, thanks to the docent. It was a pine tree in a neighbor’s yard, actually. And while it was a beautiful sight, it certainly wasn’t as magical or transformative as I thought it would be. I returned to my organic farming conference slightly disheartened (even though it was my birthday!).

Two days later, I went down the coast to Esalen, which is an organic retreat focused on personal transformation. The retreat center’s farm and gardens were such a contrast to the farmland I saw up north: Rich, dark, compost-filled soil was lined with beautiful flowers of all different sorts. The abundance of the earth was palpable. The land there serves as the basis for serving more than 1,000 meals per day. One thousand amazingly delicious meals per day! And even though there is the same drought at Esalen that there is up north, nothing looked dry at all.

And guess what else I saw? Monarch butterflies! Everywhere! Big, healthy happy butterflies drinking from every flower! Co-existing beautifully with more hummingbirds than I have ever seen in my life. This is what it’s all about, I thought to myself. This is an image of what an organic life can really be: healthy, abundant, colorfully gorgeous, fragrant, rich and lush—the perfect environment for personal transformation.

So here is the plan. Monarchs need milkweed to survive. I’m going to find a source for milkweed seed and we are going to take it with us wherever we go. Like a million Johnny Appleseeds, we are going to reach into our pockets and spread the seeds wherever we see a place that might be hospitable.

And maybe Monsanto and their ilk can sponsor monarch sanctuaries around the country, to give back and make up for the damage they have already done.

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18 Responses to Save the Monarchs, Spread the Milkweed

  1. Donna in Delaware says:

    Thanks for the info and a belated Happy Birthday Maria! I’ll plant several milkweed bushes on a sunny slope in my backyard this year.

  2. Karen Guise says:

    Thanks for this wonderful and timely article. I have started a campaign, called Milkweed for Mother’s Day, to encourage people to give milkweed and native plants and seeds for Mother’s Day. Find out more on my Facebook page, Eco.Birder. I have created a Thunderclap that I hope everyone will sign on for also. Planting milkweed that is native to our specific areas is very important. To find yours, go to plants.usda.gov and search Asclepias, then click on Subordinate Taxa to view range maps for all the species.

  3. Barbara says:

    About 7 years ago, I had milkweed show up in my garden, just 2 plants. Knowing that it attracted Monarchs, I left it alone. It has now taken over half of a bed. I do pull it from other beds but have dedicated this one bed to let the milkweed grow. Not too many Monarchs, but my neighbor has lots of them and other butterflies on her dill. I am planting dill in that bed this year and hopefully this will increase my butterfly population. Years ago I had lots. Now we see only a few. I grow organically, but live in a small rural town that is surrounded with corn and soybean fields. Wish they were all organic. Maybe some day they will become aware of the death and destruction their way imparts and switch to organic farming. We can educate and hope they are open to the information. Thanks for all you do to educate, Maria! May our efforts be magnified and successful!

  4. Do they feed off of other types of milkweed? The milkweed we have here in Missouri the flower is a ball that is kind of blue. There is a orange and black butterfly that it is a host to. The leaves will be full of a blackish caterpillar that will completely devour the leaf. If the plant is disturbed at all they all immediately drop to the ground.

  5. Merry says:

    The garden flowers called Asclepias are varieties of milkweed. The wild varieties of milkweed have purple or pink flowers but the garden varieties have more colors and the Monarchs love them as well; they have the same infra-red and ultra-violet patterns the butterflies respond to.

  6. Karen Guise says:

    Elizabeth Myrick, I am intrigued by your post. I don’t know of any milkweed that has blue flowers. The Monarch cat is black, white, and yellow striped, and there are usually no more than 2 or 3 on each plant. Would love to see a photo (find me on Facebook) if you have one.

    Also, a note about milkweed–part of our “mission” here must also be replacing the native milkweeds that are being lost to industrial farming. Please do take a moment to find out the MW that is native to your area. Some milkweeds do not spread, such as Swamp Milkweed, and all milkweeds can be kept manageable by cutting them back, which also encourages branching. The Monarchs actually prefer this, as this supplies more, tender leaves for them to lay eggs on.

  7. J. Cummings says:

    Hi Maria… There’s never an easy cure to saving a species – especially one as complex as the Monarch. I have raised Monarchs for the past seven years and have learned a little more about them each year. Yes, they do rely on Milkweed – and planting more will definitely help them — especially at this time. But there are other factors at play and one is weather conditions. Monarchs can freeze to death if it gets too cold and they can die also if it gets too hot. They also need a specific range of temperatures for egg-laying. Another factor, of course, is herbicides which have taken a toll on this population. I was in Champaign-Urbana Illinois last summer at the height of monarch egg-laying season in the Midwest. I stood in the middle of a prairie that was filled with milkweed — but, I could barely find one monarch egg in this large expanse. Why? Monsanto commits $250,000 to University of Illinois Ag …cropsci.illinois.edu/…/monsanto-commit…
    I wonder? Finally, the monarch butterflies overwintering site in Mexico is decreasing each year. This forest area is down 59% since last year.
    To me, there is nothing as beautiful and delicate as a Monarch butterfly. And I truly hope that all your readers will plant milkweed, as I have done, and learn to help these tiny creatures along their journey. In the meantime, I think that we all need to pray for humanity’s journey to be simpler ( less consumer-driven), more just (caring for other species) and peaceful. Perhaps then, there will be room for the Monarchs as well.

  8. Michael Eschenbach Schriewer says:

    Thank you.

  9. The milkweed we have are native. I do not have a picture but come summer I’ll try to get one. We will be moving sometime this year so don’t know that I will be here. But these milkweed bloom and then form a big long pod that opens in the late fall with what looks kind of like dandelion fluff with a big seed on it. They do spread but are not a problem. Ours comes up at the gate to the yard. This year I had to cut some of it back as there was getting to be so much of it that it was in the walkway. The bees love it too.

  10. Karen I use yahoo search and just typed in “pictures of common milkweed in Missouri”. The first thing that came up was it with six or eight pictures. Sorry the flower is more purple than blue. But that is the one we have growing here.

  11. James Early says:

    Maria, this issue has been in the news a lot lately and I really appreciate you taking the bull by the horns. For my part, I am going to let the milkweed in my garden grow this year. It comes up in a place I wanted something else to grow, but maybe Mother Nature is trying to tell me something. I was finally going to dig it out by the roots this spring, but now I’ll let it grow.

    I do get Monarchs in my yard because of all the flowers, so now I will offer them a place to lay their eggs as well.

  12. Karen Guise says:

    Elizabeth Myrick, thanks for replying and for checking that out for me. Good luck with your move!

    For those who want to do more to help the Monarchs, please consider raising them, inside and safe, from eggs you collect on your milkweed plants. Only a tiny percentage of caterpillars makes it to adult butterfly. Raising them is easy, fun, and one of the most rewarding and profound experiences you will ever have, I promise! Instructions can be found on the internet, or visit my Facebook page and check out my Photo Albums about it by clicking on my name here.

  13. Lauren says:

    While it’s great that you link to resources at the end of this article, your link to “free milkweed seeds” goes to a site that specifically says the following:

    “Attention Press: We love the hundreds and sometimes thousands of letters we get from your readers and hope to be an ongoing part of your outreach to your audience. BUT please remember this is a contribution based seed program that relies on the many small purchases in self addressed stamped envelopes that come in to cover the cost to buy and collect seeds, print, pack, open, read, count, answer questions, stuff, seal and all too often include postage on all those requests. We encourage you to send your readers to our site and or this page and make sure they understand our offering is contribution based. We have funds to cover a small percentage of free seed requests but have unfortunately been inundated from time to time with thousands of free requests for materials that have bypassed our web site and are a significant drain on our small staff and limited resources. Trust us, your active audience will definitely contact you if their requests are not filled, please help us keep this program ongoing.”

    It says that right on the page you linked to.

    Those of us committed to doing something to help the monarchs ought to either donate money to that organization, or purchase milkweed seeds, plant milkweed, and harvest the seeds each fall ourselves. This is what I do. This spring I am going to use my harvested milkweed seeds to make “seed bombs” of milkweed and toss them around everywhere I go.

    You can read about seed bombs and how to make them here: http://www.guerrillagardening.org/ggseedbombs.html

  14. Mary says:

    Elizabeth- I live in Missouri. The most common milkweed here is Common Milkweed (Asclepias syricia). I grow it in my garden. It has whitish- pinkish blooms in my opinion. You can also grow Butterfly (A. tuberosa) although they don’t like it as well or Swamp Milkweed (A. incarnata) which takes more water to get established but does well in a garden setting once mature. The fuzzy, black caterpillars you mentioned sound a lot like the silvery checkerspot caterpillar which uses composites like Black-eyed susans or purple coneflowers as its host plant.

    Maria- thank you for this. The monarchs are really in trouble and that is exactly what we need- thousands of people with pockets of milkweed seeds. That’s what we need to save the migration.

  15. Brian says:

    We used to have milkweeds alone the roads on my Grandfather’s farm in Catasauqua. I have thought that I don’t see them growing wild anymore. Of course most of the farms in this area are long gone. I didn’t realize all we lose from this.

  16. Steph C says:

    I collected a bunch of milkweed seeds (pods) from plants last year in my yard. I thought hard about whether I should do this or let them become “wishes” and fly free. But I live in front of a sizeable farm (which judging by the smell of rotting daikon radishes is at least trying some organic methods next season) and I know most of those seeds will get plowed down (or worse! if they use chemicals). So Im going to see if I can create a butterfly garden this spring planting the milkweed and transplanting some trumpet vine from another location… any pointers?

  17. Karen Guise says:

    Steph C–ideally, milkweed seeds should be sown in the fall for overwintering, but if your ground is not at all workable now, you can still wintersow them in containers. You can reuse food containers for this. For instance, I am using mushroom tubs inside of clear, grocery-store fried chicken clear containers. This makes a little greenhouse of sorts (be sure to poke holes in the clear container, both top and bottom). Another easy way is to cut a milk jug in half horizontally, put in starter soil and seeds, then tape the jug back together. Do not put the lid on. Set these wintersowing containers outside and let them get rained on, etc. When the seeds sprout you can then transplant them where ever you want. More info on my Facebook page, and also on the internet by searching “wintersow”.

    As far as your butterfly habitat, a couple of, IMO, must-have annuals are Mexican Sunflower and Tall Zinnia. The Monarchs, and all butterflies, absolutely love these flowers, and they are so easy to grow from seed. Wait until the soil is completely warm so you’ll get great germination. You can save these seeds every year, so you only have to buy them once. Also, please do take a moment to either look on my page or search the internet for “butterfly host plants.” Let’s help all the butterflies and pollinators by planting the food their caterpillars need. :o )

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