The population of Monarch butterflies (Danaus plexippus) has been dwindling down to a point of concern that they may be heading toward extinction. With a small patch of garden, we try our best to help them by letting the Common Milkweed (Asclepiassyriaca) grow. It’s the only plant that Monarch caterpillars eat.
I didn’t grow the first milkweed. It came to our garden around three or four years ago. The seeds are airborne but I had not seen any milkweed around our area then, but I may have overlooked it. Though it falls in the ‘weed’ category, I let the first one grow anyway. Then I fell in love with its fragrance. The first lone milkweed has grown into a large patch now and we try to keep them confined to one spot. They can be pretty invasive; every spring I have to pull out the ones that sprouted in the middle of the lawn or flower plots. We also let them grow in the spots that are out of the way so as not to over-crowd the other plants.
Aside from enjoying its fragrant and beautiful flowers, it’s also host to a variety of insects both friend and foe of the garden. This year we are seeing more Monarchs so we have started to monitor them more closely. It has taken us a few years to be registered on their homing GPS as one of their destinations. I guess they decided that our garden is a reliable food source for their caterpillars and young adults so they lay eggs. We were so happy and excited close to the point of obsession. We checked on them everyday!
Only a few of them survived. I don’t know who might eat them. Most likely wasps have taken them for the future youngsters in their burrows. But a few are better than none. Hopefully the ones that were born in our garden survive the long flight to Sierra Madre, Mexico, and the winter to tell the next generation where our garden is.
Most people hate weeds, maybe with an exception for Cannabis. I don’t like weeds either but as I turn our little garden patch back to nature, to make it into a sanctuary for other species as well as ourselves, I have to learn to get along with weeds. When I walk through a farmer’s market, I also note that they sell many flowers we usually call weeds. Quite expensively too, for something you would like to get rid of. So, it’s still true that beauty is in the eye of the beholder.
Pollinators love weeds. There is no doubt about it as we try to eliminate them but they continue to proliferate with help from pollinators. Many of these weeds are also edible and have medicinal properties. As I’ve gained more knowledge about them, my perception has changed drastically and I have made room for them in the garden.
Here’s to beautiful weeds…
There are more weeds growing in our garden than what I’ve mentioned above. I’m fascinated by the fact that many of them are edible. I have not tried them all except for wild Daylily and dandelion. I’m also surprised that many of the flowers and herbs in our area are considered weeds someplace else.
Weeds of North America by Richard Dickinson and France Royer
Weeds of the Northeast by Richard H. Uva, Joseph C. Neal and Joseph M. DiTomaso
Edible Wild Plants: Wild Food From Dirt to Plate by John Kallas, PhD.
Forager’s Harvest: A Guide to Identifying, Harvesting,and Preparing EdibleWild Plants by Samuel Thayer
I forgot about an article I had read on the effort to rescue the Monarch butterflies from extinction. Setting the Table for a Regal Butterfly Comeback, With Milkweed by Michael Wines in The New York Times on 12/20 may be old news but it is still good news for pollinators, and the Monarchs specifically. It would be very interesting to see wild native flowers growing in the divided area of the highways and along the road again.
The Common Milkweeds (Asclepias syriaca) in our garden grew by themselves, probably from seeds that the wind dropped off. I let them grow and flower. To my surprise, the flowers are fragrant and the honeybees love them. I never thought that they were fragrant as the varieties of Butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa), its relative, I have grown have no scent. Now, I have even more incentive to grow them, not just ignore them, in the garden.
For gardeners who like to help the Monarch butterfly by growing Milkweed, please note that:
They are easy to grow, but hard to get rid of. Their shoots can sprout up in unlikely places.
All parts of the plant are toxic.
The ‘milk’ liquid that oozes out of a broken part of the plant can cause skin irritation.
Aside from the down side, they are drought tolerant, fragrant, and bees and butterflies love them. The shoots are also edible, when extremely careful and well cooked. Here’s a short photo profile of this beautiful weed…
Below are Butterfly weeds (Asclepias tuberosa), it’s relative. They come in very bright colorful colors of yellow, orange and red. They’re much shorter than the Common milkweed but branch out, not just one straight stalk. Butterflies, bees and ants love them.
I have no idea how Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) aka Milkweed came to be in our garden. They just showed up two years ago and have stayed ever since. Getting rid of it proved to be not an easy task, but taming it is quite easy. I just pull the stalk out of the ground.
The first year it showed up, I let it grow without realizing that it would expand outward as its runner travels underground. It’s classified as a weed but I think that’s in the eye of the beholder. Milkweed, for me, is a lovely fragrant flower that I don’t have to take care of. I let Milkweed take up residence in the garden for many reasons. First of all, if you ever smell its flowers you will let it grow too. In a good weather day I merely have to walk by and its perfume finds my nose. The flowers are small and very pretty too.
Milkweed also provides food for Monarch butterfly caterpillars as well. Their population is diminishing since we, humans, are getting rid of Milkweed all along their migration path for the sake of conventional farming. I just hope to be able to save a few, if they are able to get here. I saw a couple of them last year but haven’t seen any this year. I hope it’s because it’s too early for them and not because they didn’t survive.
I can’t ignore how much the bees love the Milkweed’s flowers. The honey bees from our hives don’t have to go too far for their nectar.
And, I can eat them if I want to. I know the liquid that oozes out of the plant will make the skin itch and every part of the plant is toxic if not fully cooked. There are books providing ways to harvest and prepare them, two notable ones are:
The Forager’s Harvest: A Guide to Identifying, Harvesting, and Preparing Edible Wild Plants by Samuel Thayer
Edible Wild Plants: A North American Field Guide by Thomas S. Elias and Peter A. Dykeman
I haven’t tried eating them yet, just sticking with Dandelion and other flowers I know that are edible like wild Daylily and Moonflower. I know if I think long and hard enough I will be able to come up with more reasons for letting Common Milkweed grow in our garden.