Posts Tagged ‘monarch butterlies’

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.


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.


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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