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Posts Tagged ‘milkweed’

It looked like we had a pillow fight out in the back yard today. Only, there wasn’t a ‘we’, there weren’t any pillows, and the stuff floating around in the air and clinging to everything was the fluffy white stuff that helps milkweed seeds go airborne. Except, they didn’t go airborne: I was attempting to stuff the seeds into gallon plastic bags as I ripped them out of the very dry pods.

Let me try to explain: Monarch butterflies are these regal, orange-and-black butterflies that once roamed from Mexico to Canada, along routes where milkweed grows.Monarch butterflies are in decline, as are honeybees, bumblebees, and who knows what other beneficial insects that rely on natural plantings that use no pesticides/herbicides.

Milkweed in a generic name for Ascelpias L., a genera of nearly 140 species. It used to grow wild throughout much of the Northern Hemisphere, and at least three known insects dine solely on milkweed, the Monarch Butterfly being one of those species. Sometime in the 1960’s, communities began using herbicides to kill the milkweed growing along ditches, or they ran culverts and covered up the ditches. The more the milkweed habitat was destroyed, the more it dribbled down to the species which rely on milkweed for survival. Monarch Butterflies began their decline.

I was 12 when they buried the “ditch” across the street in a culvert and a lawn. I wanted to go lay down in front of the bulldozers and sing protest songs, but my father absolutely forbade me. One thing you did not do: defy my father on one of his ‘absolutes’. For instance, we kids never wore socks to bed after he found out we’d done it just once. (My brother and I do wear socks to bed, but Dad has long since passed, and we only do so in the comfort of our own homes. I don’t know why you can’t wear socks to bed, but I am certain that Wilcoxes do not wear socks to bed!

I felt I let the Monarchs down. I’d raised a dozen of them in jars, allowing them to walk all over my hands as their wings stretched and dried and they finally took off in a gentle flutter of wings. There’s really not a thrill that comes any closer to coaxing a still-wet butterfly out of its crystal cyrsalis and feeling its sticky feet measure the distance on your hands before it takes to flight.

Nearly two decades ago, scientists began urging people to grow milkweed in their garden, and milkweed seeds became available from the big seed companies down to the organic seed companies. The problem with that is this: milkweed doesn’t readily grow from see. It is a biennial, which means it takes two years to mature – if you can get it to even sprout that first year. People started planting the wrong species of milkweed for their area, and even if they could get it to grow, the butterflies didn’t come.

Four to five years ago, I took two seed packets of milkweed: one ‘showy’ and one ‘common’. These are the species native to the Willamette Valley. I put them in the freezer for one to three months before sowing them in the early spring. And nothing happened.

The following spring(a year later), I espied something coming up that I though might actually be milkweed. the litmus test: pinch a leaf off and see if it ‘bleeds’ thick, sticky, milky, sap. YES!!

The plants got about a foot tall and died back. Damn.

The next year, there were more sprouts. I mean a lot more: despite the fact that the plant had not matured and sown seeds, I had double the number of plants as I had the year before. They grew to about three feet in height before dying back. Again, before flowering. Meanwhile, I read about someone up the Valley (that would be south of here as the Willamette flows north) who had Monarchs on her milkweed.

This summer, the milkweed sprouts doubles, and doubled again. I easily had four times the number of plants from the previous year, and they all produced flowers: showy and common. No Monarchs, but the honeybees, bumblebees, wasps, and a couple of other butterflies, and – of course – milkweed beetles – pollinated the flowers. We watched with growing excitement as pods developed.

Milkweed pods can be used for any number of home crafting. Not to mention the seeds developing inside of them…

Then the rains came and the pods turned into soggy messes, half-opened. Gotta love where I live.

I cut as many pods as I could from the plants, brought them inside, and dried them in the bathtub. And I ignored them for months (September, October, November, halfway into December). It’s a good thing our shower is separate from the bathtub, know what I’m saying?

Today, I hauled all my containers out into the back yard and began freeing the seeds from the pods. You can imagine the air.

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I’m going to have to figure out how to get rid of the rest of the fluff and save the seeds. These are gallon bags. I lost about another bagful to the light breeze that helped me winnow out the seeds.

They are mixed up: common and showy. Showy has pink flowers; common has white flowers. My husband thinks we should covertly let the seeds go in the city park down the hill (the one with a creek running through it). I think I should ship them to whoever asks for them and let whoever gets them begin their own journey of restoring habitat for the Monarch Butterfly. Recipient gets to deal with the feathery stuff.

Here’s how to grow them from seed: place in freezer for 1-3 months. Sow in early spring, with just a little soil covering them. Wait four years, but make certain to water occasionally. You could try talking to them, too, I hear talking to plants works. By year five, maybe the butterflies will come, but even if they do now, the native bumblebees and wasps will thank you, as will the declining honeybees.

To hell with municipalities that label milkweed with the invasive Russian thistle and other noxious weeds.

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Bonus: you can spray paint the pods and make unique Christmas/Easter/whatever ornaments. You can create little dioramas. Make them into little insect boats to float the River Styx.

Let me know if you want one of my gallon bags and I will send it out to you in early January. No strings attached – well, one: you have to plant them and hope.

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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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