Milkweed Mission

It is a little early to start thinking about the arrival of my favorite butterfly, but I read that the Monarchs have started to leave their overwintering site in Central Mexico’s Sierra Madre Mountains.  If you have a chance and want to listen to a scientist who has devoted her whole life to this incredible creature, you can listen to this webcast of the Larry Meiller show from last week. I had the pleasure of listening to Dr. Karen Oberhauser in person at our State Master Gardener Conference in 2015. She had long been an inspiration to me, so I was thrilled to have the opportunity. It is due to her common sense approach to citizen science and biology that I continue to raise Monarchs in small numbers each summer.

It will be mid-to late May before we see Monarchs here, if we’re lucky. According to my Journey North observational records, I saw a Monarch in May last year, but the year before, in 2017, I did not see one in my home garden until July 5th. I have recorded my sightings since 2006 with Journey North.

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Several things have to happen before the Monarchs arrive. All the snow needs to melt. We have more snow cover this year than I have ever seen in my twenty years as a Wisconsin resident.  As it melts, the soil becomes hydrated, helping to break seed coats and dormancy on those seeds dispersed naturally.

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But, this year, with literally feet of snow blanketing the ground, most of us will experience saturated soils in the least and more devastating flooding if the worse scenario happens.  Saturated soils can lead to erosion and rotting.  As you might guess, I am hoping for some dry, warm days this spring.

After the snowpack melts, the ground needs to warm. Milkweed is a perennial plant, so  although the seeds dispersed naturally – through wind – it commonly re-establishes itself from its already existing root system. Having a long tap-root, as many prairie plants do,  milkweed can regrow year after year in the same spot. This is the case in my gardens.

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The sun is needed to warm the soil, as well as dry it. This helps the dormant plants know it is the time for regrowth. For many of us, this is what the entire season of spring signifies –  regrowth, rejuvenation, rebirth, a new life.

I start checking my garden as soon as the days warm and the snow is gone. Most years it is the end of April or beginning of May before I see any signs of my milkweed pushing its way up through the soil. I have three major patches of three different types of milkweed in my yard.  My largest, and most established patch is my common milkweed.

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This runs almost the entire length of a garden on the south side of our garage. It is a perfect location for this native prairie plant, where heat and sun are present most of the day.

My other significant patch of milkweed is rose milkweed. The rose milkweed is special to me because it was started by my garden club students in 2015.  Once the seedlings sprouted, I put them behind our barn where, which faces East, where they have grown and flourished.

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The other patch of milkweed we have is swamp milkweed which does quite well in the portions of our yard that has clay soil and holds the moisture. My swamp milkweed is smaller than the other two varieties and does not get as much sun because it is under a large maple tree. Still, it is a nice variety to have, and the caterpillars seem to enjoy it.

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Since we still have many inches of snow on the ground, I busied myself yesterday by playing with some software to make labels for the milkweed seeds that have stratified (cold storage) over the winter in my garage. Most of the seeds I have are common milkweed but the computer generated labels will be great to put on the small envelopes I bought specifically for this purpose.  I am not sure yet how I will make the seeds available, but in recent years, conference goers and Lion’s Club members have been recipients of my saved seed. To help disseminate native milkweed seed is part of my personal milkweed mission.

Mother Nature is amazing. We always have milkweed before we have Monarchs.  The plant germinates, returns, and grows prior to the return of the Monarch. Timing is everything. To have monarchs, we must have milkweed. Our seasonal changes allow that pattern to exist here in the Northern Latitudes of the United States.  It is essential that the pattern occurs in the way it does, for the adult female monarch specifically lays her eggs on the only plant (milkweed) the larva (caterpillar) that species of Lepidoptera will eat.  It is not by chance, but by evolution, that the plant is growing in the spring prior to the arrival of the Monarchs!

It is important to plant milkweeds native to your area of the country. If you are unsure what those are, you can refer to the milkweed information on the Monarch Joint Venture website.  Do you have milkweed in your yard? When do you notice that it has germinated? I would love to know.  Once it has happened, you know that the Monarchs are not far behind!

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