My wild food goal is to learn one or two plants to identify and start using each season. This year, the importance of one of them fell into my lap. Bees are not the only pollinator threatened, our monarch populations are on the decline.
I ran across an article on the Denver Post that explains how GMO crops made to be resistant to herbicides are being sprayed for weeds, and this spray is causing a decline in milkweed plants that monarchs need for breeding. The impact seems to be more than small, the Smithsonian reports a 90% decline in migrating monarch populations over the last two decades. Why has this news taken so long to get to me? Where on earth have I been?
That is so sad, just thinking of the beautiful migration, those lovely trees covered in massive amounts of butterflies no longer existing, that just hurts my heart.
This also made me sad for three other reasons. One, I know the importance of pollinators. Food is kind of an important thing, it would be sad if we had less food. Two, I’ve always wanted to try milkweed pod pickles (small pods can be pickled like capers), and this new fermentation pickle thing I’m so all over right now makes this possibility seem even more fun. If milkweed were harder to find, that possibility might not ever become actuality. Three, milkweed has fibers that can be spun into rope or used in paper making. I already spin, and I’d love to start making my own paper (I’ve been keeping my eyes peeled for discarded broken screens to use). There’s a ton more uses too, check out my milkweed page in the new foraging section (more articles are definitely coming in that section).
Seriously, one of the reasons I love to spin my own yarn is so that when someone says they like my sweater, I can say “thanks, I made the yarn myself. Got that golden color by dyeing it with coffee grounds.” Their eyes totally pop out of their heads, you’ve so just won the interaction. I think it would be cool to make a milkweed purse (with the end of the season plants that are going dormant so as to not damage the supply) and pull that same trick.
So, this is a problem that has a remedy. If we start planting milkweed in our gardens, or scatter the seeds around fields and other places that may give the plant a chance to grow (scatter in late fall), we can help provide the Monarch with this plant that is so critical to their survival. Growing it in your own garden (perfect for a butterfly garden in general, or a child’s garden) is one route to take. Another thing you can do if you don’t have access to your own garden is to encourage your child’s school (and some non-profit organizations) to apply for free plants. I’ve already emailed my son’s science teacher (she said it was perfect, they’re about to study ecosystems).
I have seen debate about this. I’ve heard the argument we should not mess with nature, that we could disrupt ecosystems and nature is better left on it’s own. Perhaps, but in some situations (and this one is very much included in that) we’ve already messed with nature, that’s the problem. If you are planting local species, things that are already a part of the ecosystem and are not likely to take over the area, then situations like this call for action.
Know what to plant though. The popular tropical milkweed species may actually damage monarch populations. Asclepias curassavica is green all year long, where species native to America die back in the winter. This dying back is important for two reasons. One, when it dies back it kills any potential infestation of a parasitic protozoa that weakens monarchs and makes them unable to survive during the migration. The plant dying back keeps this protozoa under control, as when the plant returns in the spring it will be parasite free. Two, if the plants don’t die off in the winter, the monarch migration patterns are disrupted, thus disrupting the cycles that monarchs have evolved to thrive under. (Three, the dying back plant can be harvested for fiber and paper ’cause I’ve got the greedy.)
So, A. curassavica is out as an option. Asclepias syriaca on the other hand is native to most of North America (including Canada). This is the species I highly recommend spreading, if you live within its native area. If you don’t, take a look at the milkweeds from where you are. If it isn’t A. syriaca, it won’t be that edible so go ahead and see what that page recommends is needed to balance out your local ecosystem, (or do that if you don’t plan on harvesting any edibles from your crop).
To find seeds, The Xerces Society has an online seed locator that may be of help. I’ve also seen them for sale on eBay and Amazon.com. I found some sources of seed online, but I want to make sure that I get Asclepias syriaca, because I want to possibly eat it, and some sources were offering mixed species, did not list the species, or annoyed me by acting like the seeds were free but then asked for a “donation” or charged shipping rates that equaled the usual cost of a pack of seeds. I ended up going with an eBay purchase myself. Make sure to do your search by the species name and that the name is clearly stated as the product.
Seeds are best started indoors. I’m all ready for it, I’ve been saving plastic egg cartons. The only free range eggs at my local store come in a crate of clear plastic. At first I didn’t like that, I wanted cardboard that is biodegradable. However, it’s a nice little greenhouse so I do get some re-usability out of it at least.
Milkweed seeds need cold stratification, they will not germinate correctly unless they think winter has come and gone. This can mean that you plant them outside during the fall, or you can keep them in your refrigerator for a couple of weeks. My seed packet recommends 30 days. I’ve done this only once before, you soak the seeds in water for a day in the refrigerator, then you either plant them and keep them in the refrigerator or you place them inside a moist paper towel that is then tucked into a plastic baggie.
My seeds did not germinate last time (I tried passion fruit), but this time I have more seeds. I scarified (scratched the seed lightly with a pin) some of them. I’m going to try planting in soil rather than the paper towel method this time, hopefully that works. I covered with just a tiny layer of soil and watered with a spray bottle to prevent disturbing placement on my seeds. In theory, once I bring them out next month they should start to germinate (not before they are removed).
Wish me luck. If I can get a few seeds to grow, I may end up watching them in whatever wild spot I take them to and gather more seeds for next year.
If you wish to check around your area for milkweed that is already growing, take a look at the new foraging section that I have under my banner. There is a page on foraging basics, and a milkweed page gets to be the first plant up. I’ve got things in progress that will help that section start to grow soon.
(Something just occurred to me. If I do make that milkweed purse, I can say I actually started from seed. How’s that for making something from scratch?)
Posts around the web:
How to fix a butterfly’s wing. Wow. This is dedication to the cause.
Monarch Watch has several resources (including the previously mentioned free plants for schools and non-profits), especially resources to help teach your kids more about monarchs or links to other sites on the subject.