“A long time ago and in a galaxy far, far away” (as those Star Wars junkies would say), I was a part-time farmer. I had my day job in the conservation field and I grew corn, soybeans and wheat in the farm fields. You could say I was outstanding in my field! (sorry … Dad joke!)
Weather, seed, fertilizer, weeds and more occupied many of my thoughts during the evenings and weekends. Back then milkweed was prevalent and a weed to be eradicated. Times sure have changed.
Milkweed plants, in the genus Aesclepias, are available at many garden centers and come in several gorgeous colors. Last summer, my dad had a milkweed garden and I found myself torn between encouraging him and warning him about polluting the neighbor’s farm field with unwanted weed seeds. If you are scratching your head over the pendulum swing from vilified to loved, you are not alone. What has precipitated this drastic revolution?
In the past few years, milkweed’s lowly status has risen because monarch butterflies depend on several varieties of milkweed as a host plant. Monarchs (Danaus plexippus) lay eggs on milkweed plants, which are the food source for the caterpillar phase of the butterfly’s life cycle. Interestingly, plants in the milkweed family are toxic to most insects; however, monarch caterpillars and a few other insects can tolerate the poisons, known as cardiac glycosides. This ability translates into the monarch, and other tolerant insects, becoming distasteful to predators. The vibrant coloring of the monarch caterpillar and butterfly serves as a warning, a form of protective coloration — sort of like hiding in plain sight.
Monarchs can be found anywhere, even in urban areas, and backyard gardens can serve as habitat for the butterflies and caterpillars as well as a host of other beneficial pollinators that visit the flowers. According to the publication, “Milkweeds and Monarchs,” available through the Ohio Department of Natural Resources Division of Wildlife, there are 13 different milkweeds known to be used as host plants by monarchs.
If you are particularly interested in attracting monarchs for egg laying, Butterfly Weed, Common Milkweed, Purple Milkweed, Sullivant’s Milkweed and Swamp Milkweed are considered the top larval hosts. In addition, the publication identifies other native plants for the garden that are colorful and useful in a butterfly garden, providing nectar that monarchs and pollinators need.
You can download this free publication at: http://wildlife.ohiodnr.gov.
Studies are coming out showing monarch populations declining due to several possible reasons. One reason might be the degradation of the oyamel fir forests in Mexico where monarchs winter. This could be from timbering, air pollution and/or bark beetles.
A second reason might be attributed to several untimely weather events that produced hail, freezing temperatures and strong winds affecting the butterflies at the wintering grounds and during migration.
The third reason is a severe decline in milkweeds in eastern North America. You can help reverse the decline. Planting native milkweeds makes for ideal monarch habitat, beautifies your yard and attracts many other pollinators, like hummingbirds, moths and bees. Additional resources can be found at www.xerces.org and www.monarchventure.org.
Visit the Delaware Soil and Water Conservation District’s website for other conservation ideas at www.delawareswcd.org. A series of backyard conservation programs will be offered this summer — so stay tuned!
Brad Ross is communications specialist at the Delaware Soil and Water Conservation District. He can be reached at email@example.com.