Milkweed; a royal banquet
Anna May Kinney
To others, milkweed, like its name implies is only another weed. My philosophy is that there are no weeds, only plants that are used for different purposes. While my flower gardens give a lot of pleasure to our human senses of sight and smell, the main purpose of Faith's Garden is to contribute to the environment, by servicing the beneficial insects, toads, snakes, and birds living in and around them.
During the summer months all sort of people come to see the gardens, some have very definite ideas of what should and should not be in a flower garden, and some are even taken back by the assortment of wildflowers growing right amongst the cultivated hybrids.
Four years ago, when I started my first milkweed plants, a few people commented that they thought these rather clumsy and unattractive plants were just common weeds you could find along the road side, and why would anyone place them in a perennial flower garden?
This type of question is always a great opportunity to explain about the Monarch butterfly and how milkweed is the only plant that Monarch larvae will eat. It is a simple fact of Monarch life, with all the rural development projects across North America; we are seeing fewer and fewer wild areas where milkweed has a chance to flourish. It is up to us backyard gardeners to help provide a safe place where Monarchs can breed and
their young will have a chance to survive.
In four years, my milkweed has gone from a couple of tiny specimens to about twenty tall, healthy, flowering plants, and this year it all became worthwhile.
There, tucked safely between my phlox and dahlias, under a thick milkweed leaf were three Monarch caterpillars munching away, what a delightful sight.
This type of milkweed is called common milkweed. It has flower clusters in dull purplish-pink to greenish-white, reaching a height of about three feet. This hardy perennial herb can be found in pastures, prairies, roadsides and waste ground. It will grow in most any type of soil, clay, sand, even rocky calcareous soils of riverbanks or flood plains and its range is from Canada throughout much of the USA.
Monarchs migrate south each fall, and back north the following spring. It is the offspring of the Monarchs you see in your garden now, who will return next year. Some reproduce in southern winter quarters, some stop along the way, and others reproduce here in the north.
Two or more summer generations may be produced in the North and then the fall generation returns to the same wintering grounds even though it is three or more generations removed from that of the previous winter. The principle wintering grounds are in Mexico, but some monarchs over-winter in Florida, Cuba or southern California.
The female Monarch lays its eggs on a sprouted milkweed plant. The eggs hatch in four to five days producing tiny yellow, black and white banded larvae (caterpillars). These caterpillars feed solely on milkweed and eat enormous quantities because they are growing fast. They will grow to 2,700 times their original size in only two weeks, molting five times in the process.
At three weeks old the caterpillar will enter the pupa stage and gradually change into an emerald green case ringed with golden dots called a chrysalis. Inside the chrysalis, the caterpillar rebuilds into an adult butterfly, which at five weeks old, climbs out of the chrysalis headfirst.
All predators quickly recognize the Monarch's bright orange and black wings as a sign to "Keep Away". The reason for this avoidance of the Monarch by its predators is the milkweed they live on while they are in the caterpillar stage of growth.
The "milk" or white latex is both acidic and somewhat poisonous to many animals. Since the Monarch caterpillar feeds solely on milkweed, this substance is absorbed into the caterpillar's body and stored throughout its life, making this unique butterfly taste awful to many of its predators.
If you have children or grandchildren, this would make a wonderful summer project. Together, you can watch and even take picture (you'd need a close up lens to get really good pictures of either the caterpillars or full grown butterfly, but it is not hard learn to do), make a scrap book as the Monarch lays its eggs, and goes through each stage of development. The little ones would not only be learning something to tell and
show their teacher and class the following fall, but you would be creating those childhood memories that last forever.
Now that I have you interested in starting a stand of milkweed, there are a few more things you should know. Milkweed should be planted in a protected area, like next to a bush or cluster of high perennial flowers like phlox. You need to provide a source of clean water for the parent butterflies, and lots of flowers that butterflies like to gather nectar from.
One of the most important things to remember is not to use pesticides near your flower garden, as pesticides kill both annoying insects and beneficial insects. Having a garden that is environmentally friendly to all types of wild life will be the kind of place that will attract butterflies.
Even the birds around here love Faith's Garden, many of them decided to make nests in the grape arbors, gazebo and small bushes. They feel safe with the bushes mingled between the flowers, knowing they have a place to hide when the hawks overhead are looking for a quick meal.
You'll find service berries, nanny berries, choke cherries and bush cranberry strategically placed for the birds to dine on, will also attract butterflies and offer them the protection they require for a breeding area. Another advantage in making sure there is always something in season for the bird population to feast on is that the birds will eat many of the bugs you would have needed those pesticides for.
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