I have been gardening for as long as I can remember. The old fashioned farm gardens were large and only grew vegetables that could be used fresh and later canned for the winter. There was little room for flowers and unusual plants. I was allowed to plant my “fun stuff” at the end of the rows or in the row if a plant or two died.
I know the name of almost every weed that grows in the Midwest; not because I am weed smart but because at some time I pulled them out of the garden or hoed them out of the bean field when we used to “walk the beans.”
Now several decades later I have beautiful flowers and unusual plants from around the world and weeds that I let grow for the butterflies. Common milkweed was one of those weeds on the farm that we would cut down, but now I encourage it to grow and even sow seeds for new plants.
If you want to collect your own seeds, do it in the fall just as the milkweed pods turn a light gray color and are ready to burst open. Place the pods in a brown paper bag and let the seed dry. Once the pods pop open, place the seeds back in the bag and shake it vigorously. This will help separate the brown seeds from the white fluff. The seed needs to go through a cold period in order to germinate.
You can leave the bag in an unheated garage or put seeds in a glass jar in the freezer. This mimics the conditions the seed would go throughout in nature over the winter. Scatter the seeds in the spring where you want the plants to grow. Established milkweed plants do not transplant well but seeds seem to take hold and grow fast once we get into the heat of the summer.
The Monarch butterfly population has been in decline over the last decade and there has been a push to help this migratory insect survive, thrive and make a comeback. Their decline appears to be a combination of several environmental factors including weed sprays and chemicals, a decline in forest areas where they over winter in Mexico, and changing weather patterns.
If the Monarch butterflies survive their fall migration they will be tired and weak when they arrive to their winter hibernation areas in the mountains of Mexico. Then there are winter storms and snow to add to their struggle to survive. In the spring they will start their journey north. The first hatching area is in the south, mainly Texas. Past droughts and fires in the southern part of the country have reduced the number of milkweed in the landscape for the first butterflies to lay their eggs on. These eggs will hatch and grow into butterflies that will make the second leg of the migration to the Midwest and as far north as Canada.
We are starting now to see these butterflies in the area laying eggs on the underside of tender new milkweed plants. As these first eggs and the next generations hatch, we will see more and more Monarchs as the summer progresses.
The first generations of the season are breeders whose mission in life is to increase the population. The last generation magically switches from breeders to migrators. The magic part could actually be due to the day length, day and night temperatures and other factors in nature. Monarchs seem to know when the time comes to start their one and only migration back to the fir trees in Mexico.
This butterfly is just another marvel of nature migrating thousands of miles to spend the winter in a more favorable climate. You can do your part to help this species survive by planting or protecting the common milkweed we have seen growing in ditches and in the wild for centuries.
Margo Hansen is the Director of Programs at Bickelhaupt Arboretum/Clinton Community College and a member of Clinton Trees Forever.