The Critical Need for Native Milkweed
The most critical step in building habitat for Monarch butterflies is to ensure a sufficient number of milkweed plants in the habitat. I would be hesitant to say the exact number of milkweed plants that would be required in a particular habitat as the sizes of habitats vary as well as the size of the milkweed plants within the habitat. Four or five milkweed planted in one area of the habitat will usually be adequate. Enough milkweed leaves must be there to support the Monarch population through its caterpillar stage which is devoted to voracious eating. Eric Carle, author of "The Very Hungry Caterpillar" based at least some of his famous children's book on fact: Caterpillars are hungry. In fact, they are eating machines.
Tragedy strikes when there is not enough milkweed for the Monarch caterpillars. In late April of 2015, I wrote of a Monarch caterpillar catastrophe at the Garland Community Garden: Monarch caterpillars arrive at the Garland Community Garden. This story illustrates what happens when the supply of milkweed is not sufficient. The caterpillars strip all the leaves and thus, in addition to having no food left, have no protective cover to shield them from their many predators and thus they are easy picking. That's why we are recommending that folks have three or four milkweed plants in their habitat. One plant will almost never be enough.
As many of you know, Mayor Doug Athas has taken the Mayor's Monarch Pledge. We had our first meeting with interested citizens a few days ago on February 23. One of the outcomes from this meeting has been the realization that we need to plant a lot of native milkweed here in Garland Texas. Frankly this is easier said than done and it will take some amount of diligence and dedication. Native milkweed seed is not that easy to find.
Loving Garland Green has already implemented the beginning of what will be called "The Great Garland Milkweed Monitoring Project." This project was kicked off on February 15 when we held our first speakers meeting at the local Garland downtown library. Our guest speaker was Roseann Ferguson, a local Garland gardener who is also a Master Gardener. Roseann spoke on the topic of attracting pollinators with native plants. Among our door prizes, we gave away a small flat of nine Asclepias asperula (or perhaps Asclepias viridis). Since the seeds for these plants were collected from a wild area in the late fall after the plants were gone, we can't make a definite determination until the plants mature.
Details of the Great Garland Milkweed Monitoring Project
Goal: to give away 100 Native Milkweed seedlings on or before April 15 to 50 Garland residents (The seedlings will not be ready until the third or fourth week in March.) To be eligible to receive seedlings, participants must be Garland residents between the ages of 9 and 100. Yes, we trust children to be caretakers of plants.
This gift will not be given without a few requirements from the recipients:
- Report at least once a month via email with photos to Loving Garland Green regarding your milkweed, how its growing and what it is attracting.
- In the late summer/early fall when the plant makes seed pods, you must give at least two seed pods to Loving Garland Green
Following such a simple plan as this, we believe the growth of milkweed in our community as well as our community's interest in the importance of pollinators will be exponential explosion.
Next year, for example, Loving Garland Green will have at least 100 seed pods, each having at least 20 seeds-- 2,000 native milkweed seeds. (These seeds sell today, when you can find them at 10 per packet for about $3.00.) No we likely won't sell them, but we will give them away and encourage folks to join the Great Garland Milkweed Monitoring Project.) Once again, in the spring of 2017 we will offer milkweed seedlings--only instead of 100 milkweed seedlings, we will be giving away 200 milkweed seedlings to 100 people. You can do the math from here and see what I mean in regard to exponential growth. But it's more than math, it's a community coming together to support a great cause: helping to strengthen the security of our food chain by providing habitat for pollinators--including the beautiful Monarch Butterfly.
NOW, HANG ONTO YOUR HATS! (garden hats that is)
Loving Garland Green has already received its first milkweed report. Remember that door prize of a flat of nine planted native milkweed seeds we gave away on February 15? Well, just today I got the first milkweed report from the recipient of that gift, Wendy Atlason Loiselle of Garland, Texas. The little flat that we gave Wendy has 9 native milkweed seeds planted in it. These seeds were cold-stratified (in my fridge--not freezer for 30 days) and then soaked in Garland tap water for 24 hours prior to planting. They were planted on February 15 and the plant shown below showed up 11 days later on February 25. I'm sure there will be more to come. Germination rates vary. I've read that in the wild native milkweed germinate at the rate of only two seeds from each one hundred seeds. Germination rates from the native seeds that I have are much higher--so far closer to 50%. Thus I expect Wendy to end up with at least four milkweed plants.
Perhaps before we can rescue Monarch, we need to give serious consideration as to how we can rescue native milkweed plants. In 2012, John Pleasants of the University of Iowa and Karen Oberhauser of the University of Minnesota estimated that 60 percent of milkweed has been eliminated from the grassland ecosystem. We are not talking about one species, we are talking here about the entire native flora being eliminated. All this is directly related to overuse of herbicides as an agricultural solution. The good news is that things are changing. Even the general public is becoming more aware of the destructive outcomes on beneficial plants than can result from indiscriminate overuse of herbicides on so-called weeds. Agricultural practices are also changing. For example, some farmers now leave wide borders around their fields where they allow nature to take her course with no herbicides. Government practices are also changing as well. State highway departments are cutting back on their use of herbicides along roadways. It will take time but at least it looks like we are moving in the right direction when it comes to cutting back on our overuse of herbicides.