In Thinking Like a Plant (©2013), Craig Holdrege devotes most of Chapter 5 to “The Story of Common Milkweed” and writes “Only when we get to know the life and ecology of the organism that are part of our world do we have the possibility of seeing ‘drama in every bush.’ Such learning can happen in a variety of ways, but nothing can substitute for firsthand experience of the life history of another organism. To enter that world, to see its intricacies, and to realize that in every direction you look you will find new connections and relationships – this is a central foundation of sustainability. For how are we to care for what we don’t know?”
On February 12, 2019, Somers Knight (local Millboro Elementary School volunteer, retired public school teacher, and a Virginia Master Naturalist) presented her program on “Monarch Butterflies and Master Naturalist” as part of the 2019 Salon Series at the Bath County Public Library.
Mesmerized and intrigued by Somers’ firsthand tales of raising monarch butterflies in her elementary school classroom and local volunteering, attendees learned facts about monarchs, their life cycle, migration, and strategies for helping support habitat for Danaus plexippus, Monarch butterflies.
Although Monarchs frequent a variety of plants (including boneset, Eupatorium perfoliatum– see photograph), these magnificent butterflies cannot survive without milkweed to eat and on which to lay their eggs. Monarchs and other milkweed specialists feed on milkweed, digest the substances, build up their own body substances, and store components of milkweed sap in their bodies. Because the bitter-tasting cardiac glycosides in milkweed sap, in high doses, can be fatal to an animal, some citizens rush to remove milkweed from their tended properties. Holdrege offers that this rarely happens in nature, as pre-lethal doses typically induce vomiting in the herbivore eating the milkweed plants. Most importantly, milkweed provides valuable nectar resources to bees, butterflies, flies, and a host of pollinators.
In our (Bath County, Virginia) area, Asclepias tuberosa (Butterfly weed),Asclepias incarnate (Swamp milkweed)and Asclepias syriaca(Common milkweed) are the preferred milkweed types. As one might infer, swamp milkweed prefers moist soil, but will also grow in well-drained gardens and likes full sun. Local residents who maintain their own utility rights-of-way may transform these utility corridors into Monarch and pollinator habitat by planting milkweed and other pollinator-supporting wildflowers. Residents planting pollinator gardens and dedicating areas for native species not only provide habitat for pollinators, but provide necessary pollinator support for home gardens and farms in our area.
Got milkweed? In spring, look for existing milkweed sprouts to emerge. Through May and June, vigorous shoots grow 3 to 5 feet, surpassing goldenrod. Within a colony (one milkweed plant with its many shoots), flowering typically lasts about 4 weeks. July, August, and September see milkweed pods slowly grow and seeds develop. By October, early November, and into winter months, seedpods begin to open and white silky comas allow seeds to be carried away by winds. As this timeline suggests, providing habitat for milkweed affords many opportunities for enjoyment, observation, connecting, and celebration!
Citizens who wish to plant milkweed have many opportunities for seed and plant purchasing and for learning about the Monarch butterfly through a variety of websites, including www.saveourmonarchs.org, www.monarchwatch.orgwww.monarchjointventure.org, and www.livemonarch.com. For a free sample of milkweed seeds, send a stamped, self-addressed envelope to Live Monarch – 2019 Seed Campaign, P.O. Box 1339, Blairsville, GA 30514.
Readers interested in planting milkweed seeds are reminded that fall planting is ideal, and that milkweed also propagate through rhizomes. For spring planting, cold stratification improves seed germination. When hand-scattering seeds, consider scattering seeds in an existing area so that new colonies may emerge, as milkweed pollinated from within its own colony does not normally result in seed development. Milkweed colonies may be identified by uniformity in shoot color and shape, in leaf shape, and/or by flower color. (Reference: p. 156, Thinking Like a Plant, by Craig Holdrege, Lisdisfarne Books, 2013.)
Readers interested in supporting pollinator populations, including Monarch butterflies, may read about Common milkweed in this US Forest web-link https://www.fs.fed.us/wildflowers/plant-of-the-week/asclepias_syriaca.shtml
Many thanks to the Salon organizers – Ronda Clayton, Lee Elliott, and Bill Jones – and to presenter Somers Knight for a delightful evening!