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Posts Tagged ‘growing milkweed’

I tossed a few milkweed seeds onto the ground back in… oh, 2012, I think. Maybe 2013. Nothing came of it. The winter of 2012, I put a packet of milkweed seeds into the freezer and then pulled them out the next spring, once again sowing them in the little triangle by the garage. Nothing came of it.

In 2014, some weeds popped up in the triangle that looked slightly sturdier and somewhat like what I remembered milkweed looked like. And, yes, when pinched, they oozed milky white sap, thick and sticky. Success! Only they didn’t grow very tall and they didn’t flower at all. I think that was the year they did a special on Oregon Public Broadcasting about how you really should start milkweed from a root cutting, not from the seed.

So why sell the seeds? ARGH.

By 2015, I knew that you really should plant milkweed that is native to your area if you want to attract Monarch butterflies back into the region. Oh dear… What had I planted?? I kept the seed packet from the second sowing: Showy milkweed. Score! Native to the Willamette Valley.

That summer, I had around six plants poking up through the ground! They were spaced along the back of the triangle, in the hottest, driest bit of soil, and while they grew to about 24″ tall, there was not a hint of flower on them. But now my hopes were kindled: every year, without fail, something had sprouted. I hoped that the roots were getting established, and subsequent years would prove my crop. The Monarchs were reportedly showing up in backyards around the Willamette Valley, as well.

I have a little history with Monarch butterflies. We lived on a street facing a dry creek bed in Northern Nevada in the 1960’s. The ditch ran in the winter and during thunderstorms (“Don’t play in the culverts! Watch upstream! A flash flood could happen any time!” – my mother’s words echo in my ears to this day), and in the summer, it was host to gophers, milkweed, monarchs, the occasional Black Widow in the culvert, and maybe a stray rattlesnake. You don’t think about the dangers when you are a kid (but your mother’s words will echo forever in your ears, long after she’s gone: “Don’t crawl in the culvert! Watch for snakes! Look upstream always!”).

Every summer, we kids would go and collect Monarch caterpillars and harvest as much milkweed as we could stuff into a jar. As the milkweed was devoured, we added more. Then, one magical day, the caterpillars would crawl to the top of the jar or a branch of the fading milkweed, and they’d hang upside down. The yellow-and-black skin would shed to reveal an emerald green chrysalis. And we’d check the chrysalis daily to see if the little gold dots were being added to. Then, one day, the chrysalis would change from green to a clear shell, and we could see the butterfly trapped inside. Oh, how we’d hover over those precious shells, waiting for them to crack open and the new butterfly to emerge!

There’s a magic in holding your hand out for the Monarch to climb onto it, wings still wet and pliable. The butterfly would walk around your hands, drying out its wings, until they were stiff, scaly, and fragile – and then you set the creature free to find a lover, lay more eggs, or fly back to Mexico for the winter.

In the late 1960’s, the City of Winnemucca covered up the ditch and put in culverts, presumably to keep us kids from getting caught in there during a flash flood (hadn’t happened, but , you know, people sue, and Joni Mitchell was singing this radical song about paving paradise and putting up a parking lot (Big Yellow Taxi). My dad wouldn’t let me go out there and lay down in front of the bulldozers in protest, and all that milkweed habitat was lost forever.

I regret that I didn’t rebel against him and make a scene. I read a Xerxes Society article a year ago that they couldn’t find any milkweed in Northern Nevada. I was only 12. I remember when the northern half of the state was covered in Monarchs.

I digress.

I had a minor success with milkweed in 2016: more plants came up (maybe 9) and some even budded. Unfortunately, the flowers never formed and the stalks withered and died. I did find a milkweed bug on one, so I knew the news was getting out in the insect world that we were growing milkweed. I also read about someone who only had nine plants, had caterpillars, and couldn’t find enough milkweed to satisfy the little rogues – she was begging people for plants to sacrifice to the caterpillars. I think she did succeed in getting some to butterfly stage.

This spring, 2017, my little triangle was suddenly infested with milkweed!

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That’s milkweed all along the back, between three and five feet in height (.9 to 1.5 meters).

It gets better.

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I knew I planted the Showy Milkweed four years ago. It’s pink, fragrant, and native to the Willamette Valley.

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I planted the narrow leaf milkweed about five years ago. Also native to the Willamette Valley, but white and fragrant.

I have two varieties!

No Monarchs (yet), but I have their food source.

The other flowers in the triangle bloom earlier (peonies, dragon lily) or later (aster). I can dig up and move the peonies and aster as needed. I can also dig up the milkweed root stalk and move to other areas of my yard. I expect by next year, I will have a grand crop, not to mention the seed pods (oooo -arts and crafts!). I will probably be able to give others root stalk.

See where I am going with this? I am totally making up for being 12 and helpless in the face of “progress” and I am creating a new habitat.

I am so jazzed!!

And – a word to those who wish to follow in my footsteps: it takes patience. Years. Nurture. Bees.


 

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