Milkweed Flats

Milkweed flats.

No, it’s not a charming name for some geographical feature out here in the Wild West. Instead, it’s a possible remedy, though by no means a complete solution, for the imperiled  migrating North American Monarch butterfly.  Monarchwatch.org is an education, conservation and research organization benefitting the Monarch butterfly.  One of their newer projects is a “milkweed market” where they’re supplying flats of native milkweed plugs, specific to region, for sale to interested gardeners and citizen scientists.

The Monarch requires the milkweed, Asclepias, species for its survival.  The females lay their eggs on the milkweed plant, the larvae eat at that plant (and that plant ONLY).  The larvae form into the chrysalides, hatch into adults, and the cycle continues with the next breeding generation.  Adult Monarchs can feed from a variety of nectar sources, though they typically prefer native plants and wildflowers.  The larvae?  Those green/black/yellow cats only have jaws for milkweed.  All this eating, morphing, flying, and breeding occurs during the remarkable 2000-3000 mile yearly migration: winter in Mexico, flying through Texas in spring, then upwards through the mid-West to Canada in the summer, back again through Texas in autumn, finally to their mountain habitat in Mexico for winter.

The availability of native milkweed is in severe decline because of habitat destruction throughout the United States and Mexico, the use of Monsanto produced Roundup for the Roundup-resistant genetically modified seeds in the mid-West, (which has destroyed huge areas of not only native milkweed, but other flowering annuals and perennials), ongoing drought in Texas, as well as other changes in weather patterns. With declining milkweed, comes declining Monarch population.  Adding to those difficulties, “milkweed” is not a monolithic plant; its various species are endemic to particular areas and not easily propagated.

If I can beg further patience, I’ll get to the milkweed flats….

The most common milkweed species found in American plant nurseries is the Tropical Milkweed, Asclepias curassavica,  and is not native to the continental U.S.  I’ve never read why it’s the most commonly sold, I just assume it’s easiest to propagate and sell because it thrives in a wide range of situations.  Commercial nurseries are in the business to make money, so they’re most likely to sell a plant with a wide distribution, rather than plants that are regional, with more local appeal.  Native milkweed plants are just not readily available at most commercial nurseries. Though I should add that seeds are available for those who have the space and time to germinate and grow their own plants.

Tropical Milkweed, in certain areas of the southern U.S., pose an additional problem for migrating Monarchs (as if they don’t already have enough challenges!).  Most milkweed species die back during winter, re-emerging in spring to coincide with the Monarch migration northward.   Tropical Milkweed doesn’t die back in the South and can harbor disease which spreads to Monarchs when they lay their eggs for the larvae.  Tropical Milkweed is not the problem, per se, but milkweed that doesn’t die back in winter, is–or at least, the preliminary and ongoing research suggests that overwintering milkweed increases the manifestation and spread of OE, short for Ophryocystis elektroscirrha. OE is a protozoan parasite that cripples and kills Monarchs.  The current suggestion is that gardeners prune their Tropical Milkweed for winter, 2 inches above the ground, to limit the possibility of disease spread.  While OE is a problem, further study is required and scientists who study Monarchs concur that widespread herbicide use and habitat destruction play a more significant role in declining populations of these remarkable insects than any problems Tropical Milkweed might cause.

Monarch scientists and enthusiasts encourage planting milkweed specifically native to each eco-region of the U.S.

And that brings us to milkweed flats.

Monarchwatch.org is selling flats of 32 native-to-region milkweed plugs.  Each flat sells for $63-$69 (including shipping).  Click here for the milkweed market link for more information on their process of seed collection, ordering information and links to milkweed photos and descriptions.

Because the flats are a bit pricey and milkweed grows best in full sun and I don’t have lots of sun or gardening room for 32 milkweed plants (wish I did…), I’ve joined with two gardening friends in ordering one flat of native-to-where-we-live milkweed.  I still have six Tropical Milkweed specimens that I planted in 2014–it’s a valuable plant and I wouldn’t deny the migrating Monarchs nectar and larval food, but once my native milkweed plugs arrive and are planted, I’ll also have native milkweed in my garden available for their dining and brooding pleasures.

Wouldn’t it be cool if gardeners from the Rio Grande Valley all the way up to the Great Lakes purchased and shared flats of milkweed plugs?  Wouldn’t it be groovy to plant for the Monarchs, a solid path of nectar sources and nurseries, along their whole migration route?

Please support these efforts to help Monarchs.  Checkout the milkweed market of monarchwatch.org and consider planting native milkweed for Monarchs.  Encourage your local nurseries to supply native milkweed plants. Look at Native American Seed or Wildseed Farm, as additional seed sources.

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It’s all about the Monarch and its future.

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For more information, click on these links:

http://texasbutterflyranch.com/2014/12/03/q-a-grad-student-dara-satterfield-on-tropical-milkweed-and-monarch-butterflies/#comments

http://texasbutterflyranch.com/2014/11/24/nytimes-commercial-butterfly-breeders-raise-awareness-of-oe-to-help-monarch

http://switchboard.nrdc.org/blogs/sfallon/keep_calm_and_plant_milkweed.html

http://texasbutterflyranch.com/

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24 thoughts on “Milkweed Flats

  1. I currently have native milkweed seeds cold stratifying in my refrigerator but I’ve read so many reports of them being difficult to get growing that I’m not really very encouraged that I’ll get many plants established. At this point, if I got a single antelope horn milkweed plant out of a packet of seeds, I’d be ecstatic. I should also point out I rarely see monarchs in my garden. Even if I never attract a single monarch to my spaces I’m determined to try and help get native milkweed numbers back up in our area. Go native milkweed!

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    • I admire your efforts. I’m a bad, bad seed germinator and milkweed are especially challenging.

      I wonder why you don’t get monarchs? I know you’ve had photos of many other butterflies. Hmmm.

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  2. Milkweed Flats. That would be a great name for a subdivision, wouldn’t it?! Especially if each lot came with its own little patch of milkweed already growing. Are you paying attention, developers?!?

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  3. Milkweed Flats is a great name for a development! I am pretty sure that tropical milkweed is readily available because it grows quickly and blooms early in the first year. Impulse buying is a big part of the big box plant trade. People are drawn to the bright colours. A puny stump of green that won’t flower for another year or two just doesn’t have the same draw or selling appeal.

    I really love the idea of adding more native plants. And while we are at it — let’s also address the problem. Like the tropical milkweed buyers we are all drawn to the bright colours of monarch butterflies but I really worry about all the other unknown insect and plant mutualisms in danger of collapse. I think the source of the problem comes from subsidizing commodity crops. Those crops have been in surplus mode now for many years. Those surpluses drive down prices and result in the Federal Government giving out farm aid because farmers can’t make enough money to cover the cost of seeds, fertilizer and herbicide. Without those subsidies that form of agriculture simply couldn’t exist. It gets worse when you think that those crops and land aren’t actually producing food — the corn and soy are used for all kinds of things invented just because nobody knew what to do with the surplus and they didn’t want to waste it. If we want to save monarchs and biodiversity in general we ought to urge elected officials to start subsidizing organic farming methods instead. That one change would create an avalanche of good.

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    • Well, yes to all of the above. It’s a mess, this horticultural and agricultural quandary we’ve designed and developed. I realize that I can only influence a very tiny portion of the world, unlike the large corporations who have the ears and money of those who make decisions. But I’ll do my part, maybe others will do theirs, maybe a species or two can be saved from extinction. I certainly agree with your last statement, as well.

      You’re right, I didn’t think of “Milkweed Flats” as a housing development, but it does sound like one. A developer would name as such, after having bulldozed all the native flora and fauna, to build the houses, streets, and plant the St. Augustine lawns.

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    • Awe, thanks. I took lots of photos of the monarchs when they came through this fall–there were quite a few, everyday, for weeks. I felt so blessed and fortunate!! I hope they all made it to Mexico and that they’re happily clustering in trees with their brethren.

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  4. Thanks for sharing this. We just moved from Florida and I had a big patch of Tropical Milkweed until I found the Florida native. It was never a really big deal since the Monarchs over winter in Florida most of the time anyway. I have to remember what not to buy here in Texas when we finish planting the new butterfly garden. Thank you also for all the links it will help a lot.

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    • Welcome to Texas!! All the best with your butterfly garden. Hope you can make use of the links, it’s an interesting subject and certainly one in which we can all make a bit of a difference. There are not too many things in life that you can say that about. 🙂

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  5. My post is about this same topic. Tropical milkweed should only be grown in tropical places. I’ve added as much milkweed as I can to my garden and am winter sowing more swamp milkweed with hopes I’ll find a few spots this spring. If not, I’ll have lots to give away. Keep spreading the word! Great post! :o)

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    • It’s a great post–loved your photos!

      I don’t want to completely dissuade gardeners from planting Tropical Milkweed–it’s still a valuable nectar and larval food source, but it is good for gardeners to keep abreast of research and the effects of what they plant. The current suggestion for Tropical Milkweed is to cut back in the fall, to encourage the monarchs to skedaddle to Mexico and reduce the chances of disease spread.

      I think it’s great that you’ve added native milkweed and obviously that’s the proper solution. It’s just not readily available and won’t be until nurseries and commercial growers are pressured into supplying native and regionally/ecologically appropriate plants.

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  6. I’ve got a patch at the end of my driveway (currently 10 feet by 50 feet) that spreads each year, and have yet to see any Monarch Butterflies, cocoons, or caterpillars. The space also has crown vetch (I’d really like to get rid of it but alas, thank you Penn State for creating this invasive), Ironweed, Jimson Weed and Daylilies (the crown vetch is crowding out the daylilies). The area draws many birds though.

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    • Wow! That’s quite a patch! Mine have never seeded out. I know gardeners here in Austin who are cold-stratifying their seeds, in hopes of growing our native milkweed, but let’s face, most people (many of whom have very good intentions) aren’t going to go to that much trouble. They have neither the time or inclination or room to do that. The key, I think, is to rethink the idea of what is “beautiful” in the garden: sterile grass and plants or inappropriately chosen plants (ie., pretty, but not regionally appropriate). Or, training gardeners, especially the next generation of gardeners, to understand how important it is to allow part of the “yard” to be wildlife friendly–which means more native plants, allowing plants to seed out (thus not necessarily being “tidy” all the time) and to plant for less water use.

      Good luck in getting rid of that vetch!!

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      • It is much easier for those of us in rural areas to let part of our “yard” stay natural than for city dwellers. Over the next several years, my mom and I will be converting our very large perennial garden to something requiring less maintenance. We spend a great deal of time weeding, although I do find the task somewhat therapeutic. I still would like to spend some time enjoying it.

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      • Agreed. My biggest frustration is simply that I don’t have as much land as I want. We’re considering a move, not immediately, but in the not-too-distant future and I hope to have a bit more space with that move.

        I find weeding very theraputic and in fact, oddly meditative. Partly I think, because I can see real progress when I’m done, it allows my mind to relax (or not, depending upon what else is going on), and to plan for the future in that particular area. There’s something very satisfying about that.

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  7. I am hoping to learn some propagating methods for my milkweed seeds as I have swamp milkweed that I want to spread. And Common milkweed is growing easily in my garden but I want to add it to my meadow. And I want more Butterflyweed to grow in the meadow too as it grows in my garden. So I will be spreading my milkweed around and if I can get more growing in my meadow it may spread to the wild areas and kick out some of the invasives there and welcome more monarchs….great post!

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    • Good, good, good for you. I think part of the problem with milkweed is that it is difficult to propagate. I know some gardeners here who are cold stratifying seeds in their fridges. I’d hazard a guess that cold stratifying is not a problem for you. 🙂

      I also think that many people like “pretty” plants and not things that are going to be eaten my pesky “bugs.” So that’s a practice and paradigm of gardening that needs change.

      Good luck with your milkweed and I do hope that you’ll write about your process and progress.

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  8. Thank you Tina for this detailed and sobering report. May it inspire us all to dedicate a Milkweed patch in our gardens to honor and preserve our Monarchs ! In appreciation – Pam

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    • You’re most welcome, Pam. I hope many folks will add a patch of milkweed and other pollinator plants, rather than the sterile, water-hogging turf that so many are attached to.

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