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)

Why Native Plants?

So what’s the big deal about native plants?  Why are so many Americans choosing to plant natives in their landscapes?  Why are native plants so important to the survival of so many insects and other wildlife?  The answer is simple, but not an easy one to digest.  So let me start off by saying that when I think about native plants, I think about BBQ.  I know what you’re thinking, but before you dismiss my comparison… give me a chance to explain.

We live in the Kansas City area, so BBQ is a way of life.  We love everything about it.  The smells, the flavors, the preparation, and the competition.  We each have our favorite BBQ joints and closely guarded recipes.  We debate over sauce and rub and which meat is the best.  But after all is said and done, the one thing that remains is that we all agree that KC BBQ is the best.  It’s sweet and smokey and simply amazing… everything you could ever want!  However, Kansas City BBQ is not the only BBQ out there.  There are other types, with each one having their own unique style, flavor, ingredients, and regional following.  Whether we’re talking about Carolina, Kansas City, Memphis, Texas, or the many other styles of BBQ, each type is passionately loved by the masses who identify with its culture and tradition.  Some simply might say it’s all just BBQ, but to overgeneralize something so tied to tradition and location, means we lose the roots from which each style comes.  It’s more than just BBQ, its a regional fingerprint that perfectly fits its past and its people.

It’s the same way with plants.  Each type of plant fits into a region where it connects with other species to create a living community.  As we start to identify each of the living species, or “ingredients” within this living community, we begin to notice a regional recipe.  It’s in these where we begin to understand not only how each region is unique, but also allows us to see the significant role that each species plays.  The regional recipes help define the habitats and ecosystems from which insects and animals find their food, raise their young, and make their homes.  Just as BBQ has regional styles that are made unique by their ingredients, native plants are the main ingredients that help set each region apart from the others.

For decades, we have been adding plants to our gardens and landscapes that are not part of the regional recipe in which they are located.  It’s not that these nonnative plants are bad, but when we add too many of them, and not enough of our natives, the regional recipe changes.  If we are not paying attention, the recipe can change so much that we begin to lose the regional identity and often times lose species as well.  A perfect example of this is the Milkweed plant and the Monarch butterfly.  Due to our farming, gardening, and landscape practices and choices, we have changed the Central & Midwestern regional recipes to the point where Milkweed plants have become scarce.  The Monarch butterfly is directly impacted by the loss and as a result their population has faced a staggering decline.

The bottom line is this… each species of insect relies upon certain types of plants to survive.  Without these plants, these insects wouldn’t be around to feed the many bird and mammal species that rely upon them.  So, it all points back to the plants, the ingredients, that make up the regional recipes.  For it’s the regional recipes that combine and connect everything together in their own unique ways.  It’s when we go back to the roots, the original regional recipes, that we can find just the right ingredients to make each distinct ecosystem come alive.  That’s our goal… to plant the native trees, shrubs, flowers and grasses that will help return our outdoor spaces to their original regional recipes.  Who’s with me?

– Jay Parsons

* Photo – A newly emerged Monarch butterfly resting on Common Milkweed after we tagged and released it in our backyard.  Preparing some pork ribs for a BBQ competition we participated in.  (October, 2016)