Why Milkweed Matters

Two summers ago, while weeding along our backyard fence, I noticed a small Common Milkweed plant growing.  Now, for most gardeners, this discovery would initiate a sudden “weed jerk” reaction.  For decades, Milkweed has been seen as an unwelcome guest to the backyard landscape due to its size, growth habit, and appearance.  I can understand this perspective, but I do believe that Milkweed has gotten a bad reputation and been greatly misunderstood by many of us.  Plus its name alone doesn’t do itself any favors.

When I talk to people about Milkweed I’m amazed at how many have such a strong dislike for this native wildflower.  These negative sentiments remind me of another plant.  In Dr. Seuss’ movie The Lorax, the mayor of Thneedville sings about the Truffula tree and how the town should just “let it shrivel up and die.”  Milkweed has faced similar treatment over the years and we are now noticing the devastating consequences.  Sure, every species of Milkweed is toxic to animals and humans and should be handled with care.  Because of this, many farmers and ranchers have worked hard to eradicate Milkweed from their land.  Again, I can’t blame them.  If I were a farmer or rancher I too would do everything in my power to keep Milkweed out of the reach of my livestock.  Unfortunately, there are many farms and ranches across the Midwest, leaving many Milkweed plants to face this same fate.  These large tracts of land are also being heavily sprayed with herbicides to keep the weeds at bay in crop fields.  Not only that, but every time a new shopping center or neighborhood is created, the vegetation is first plowed under, leaving hardly a remnant of what once grew there.  For the past several years, Milkweed has been hit on all fronts.

So, why does it matter?  Why are so many Americans so passionate about this native wildflower?  Why does Parsons’ Gardens grow, sell, plant, and advocate for the Milkweed plant with such passion?  The answer is simple… its all about the Monarch butterfly.  Milkweed is the only larval host the Monarch butterfly has.  The Monarch’s survival is 100% dependent upon Milkweed.  The way of the Monarch is determined by what we do with Milkweed… no Milkweed… no Monarchs… it’s that simple.  Like so many others, I believe one of the best ways we can stop and even reverse the Monarch’s population decline is by simply planting more Milkweed in each of our own outdoor spaces.  According to the 2012 Census of Agriculture, 40% of land in the U.S. is farmland.  If you just look at the Midwestern counties, between 70-90% of all land is considered farmland.   2012-census-of-agriculture-highlights  This doesn’t leave much land for Milkweed, but if we each viewed our outdoor spaces as welcome places for Milkweed, we would be well on our way to saving the Monarch butterfly.

We chose not to pull this “weed” and instead allowed it to have the space it held in our backyard landscape.  Due to this decision, we’ve enjoyed watching it grow and provide food for over 12 Monarch caterpillars so far, as well as producing seed for us to use in growing even more Milkweed for Monarchs.  If you’d like to help the Monarchs by adding some Milkweed to your outdoor space, we’re here to help.  Simply contact us, we’d love to help get you started today!

– Jay Parsons

* Photo – While on a road trip to Nebraska to visit family, we stopped along a roadside off of I-29 in Iowa to feed baby Elsie.  Daniel and I decided to go on a short walk and explore the Common Milkweed plants growing in the ditch along the gravel road.  After turning over a few leaves… there it was… a tiny Monarch caterpillar!  We found one… I could not have planned it any better even if I had tried.  Daniel was so excited that he didn’t mind posing for a picture with his new little friend.  (June, 2015)

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