Milkweed – Monarch Butterfly Food Source
As a small family owned heirloom seed company, we receive many requests for partnerships with or donations to some great causes. Some of these are exceptional, as when the Xerces Society contacted us this past January about growing a specific species of milkweed that is native to our part of central Arizona. Pollinators and pollinator attractants are very important to the success of any garden, so we jumped at the chance to connect the right people who share our passion for this project. Here is how that story unfolds!
Monarch butterflies have seen steady population declines across their native range since population monitoring first began in 1976. Several 2012 reports show that Monarch numbers will drop almost 30 percent this year, continuing a decline that has lasted for the past decade. The severe drought seen across Texas and Northern Mexico, combined with wildfires across the entire southwest has been a large factor. The biggest contributor is simply the loss of land that supports the Monarch’s food source and hatchery – the Milkweed plant. Much of the land has been converted to commercial herbicide tolerant corn and soybean production, or developed into housing. Overuse of persistent chemical herbicides and roadside mowing for weed control has also created loss of milkweed habitat and thus reduced Monarch numbers.
The milkweed plant (Asclepias spp.) plays a critical role in the monarch life cycle. Each spring Monarchs move across the United States, laying eggs on native milkweeds, the only plants that serve as food for newly hatched monarch caterpillars. Because of their migratory life cycle—breeding in the United States and Canada, and overwintering at only a few locations in Mexico and California—the most effective conservation strategies for Monarch butterflies are those that protect and restore habitat across their entire range. As a result, the North American Monarch Conservation Plan recommends planting native milkweed species to restore habitat within the Monarch butterfly’s breeding range.
The Xerces Society is working to increase the availability of native milkweed seed and encourage restoration using milkweed in California, the Great Basin, the Southwest, Texas, and Florida. These are important areas of the Monarch’s spring and summer breeding range where few commercial sources of native milkweed seed currently exist. To conduct the project, they are partnering with the Monarch Joint Venture, a coalition of federal and state agencies, scientists, and nonprofit conservation organizations.
At the end of this past January, we were contacted by Brianna Borders, Plant Ecologist for The Xerces Society about a possible project to propagate a subspecies of Milkweed – Asclepias asperula that is native to Arizona. She had about 2 ounces of seed (approximately 7,000 seeds) that had been collected in the southern portion of our local county by the Desert Botanical Garden volunteers in Phoenix. Through grant funding, a California native plant nursery could propagate the seeds into plugs ready for planting. The Xerces Society was looking for a grower in our area that could bring the project into being. This would be a minimum 2 year project to grow a commercial quantity of seed to offer for sale.
After some thought, we decided that Fiona Reid was the perfect fit for this project. Recently retired as Education Director from a natural history education center, she was already growing and saving milkweed seeds at her property – Painted Lady Vineyard! One of her passions is native plants of the area, with an emphasis on butterfly attractants, and has solid connections with the Arizona Native Plant Society, as well as the Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix. The Painted Lady is a beautiful, ephemeral butterfly that happened to visit the vineyard in droves as the initial vines were being planted, thus the name for the vineyard came about.
The planting took place over a long and extremely hot weekend in the middle of June after much work over many weeks not only by Fiona but her volunteer crew to prepare the ground to receive the fragile tiny plugs that had arrived overnight in flats from the grower in California. We took part in the planting, but what really inspired, amazed and humbled us was the outpouring of community support from all walks of life and all interests in this project that will only benefit the Monarch butterfly. There are no financial rewards for any of the volunteers for the hours spent bent over in 100 degree heat planting over 2,000 fragile plugs. Many of the people helping were native plant enthusiasts, some were butterfly lovers, but a significant number had no real interest besides that of helping see a project to fruition on nothing more than the basis of it is the right thing to do.
We received this email from Fiona on Monday after the planting weekend. When we left Saturday evening, a little over half of the plugs were planted. There was some concern of getting the rest planted with the remaining group and the high heat creating a deadline of viability for the milkweed plugs.
“Monday morning, after a pretty blazing hot weekend, and the little plants – ALL of them – are sitting in the ground, protected by mulch, and getting the necessary drink of water. Mission accomplished!
320 hours of volunteer labor, not even counting mine, to get this job done from start to finish. It has been an amazing community effort and I have had the pleasure of working with a great group of people, children included. As we began to close in on the finish yesterday, and everyone was hot and very dusty and sometimes muddy, I was almost overcome by the understanding that people don’t have to involve themselves in such hard work – sometimes backbreaking work, sometimes knee-breaking work, and always hot work. They could sit at home in the cool, or an office somewhere, and do good for someone else. But none of you did that. You came knowing it was going to be outside in the heat; knowing you would kneel and bend; knowing you would get dust in your nose and eyes; knowing that – as Rachel Carson said – “there is something beyond the bounds of our human existence” that matters. You also know that you won’t get any thanks from the butterflies that find all the little milkweed gardens that will eventually grow from this project. I do know, from the simple fact that you involved yourselves in this effort, that you will one day spot a monarch butterfly and in that fleeting moment there will be a part of your soul that stirs and feels absolute content. There is something right with the world – it may be ephemeral, and maybe you can’t articulate what it is, but that moment is enough for us.
I don’t think we will get a harvest this year at all. Next year we will have to put our heads together to figure out how we take the next step – collection of the seed. In the meantime I hope you can pat yourselves on the back for a fantastic job, so well done. I cannot thank you enough.”
Here’s Fiona’s update on the project after the Monsoon rains have begun:
“It’s what we have all been waiting for – the rains! Right now, as I look through my office window, there are heavy raindrops exploding like little bombs on the driveway, and I know they are doing just the same over the new milkweed fields less than a hundred yards away. Perhaps I should take this very opportunity to celebrate these first rains of the monsoon season and take off all my clothes and run over there and be like a little milkweed, totally open to the elements!”
“2,190 milkweed plugs, grown from seed in a California greenhouse, are now at home in our native Skull Valley soil, barely 50 miles from their parent plants. And their roots are now moving out from the plug of soil which has been their ‘nest’ for so many months into the earth around them. These rains have showered them with nitrogen and freshness and their narrow leaves are pushing up towards the currently cloud covered sky. So I can pat myself on the back for a job well done, right? But nothing like this can happen without the help of others, so they all need a pat on the back as well.”
“Community and connections make good things happen. Stephen and Cindy needed to think of me for this project; I needed Jodi Padgett, with whom I share life and land, to agree with the idea that we could plant the milkweed on the property; I needed to find someone to plough and level the planting areas; I needed volunteer help almost every step of the way. I needed Brianna Borders of the Xerces Society to support me when needed. Food and wine is usually a great incentive for volunteers, but that’s not all – realizing that there is, as Rachel Carson said, “something beyond the bounds of our human existence” worth paying attention to is probably more of an incentive for every single one of the volunteers who came and knelt, and dug, and laid weed barrier fabric, and connected irrigation parts, and invented hole-burners and augers, and finally, tenderly, popped these little milkweed plugs into the earth with a silent prayer that each one would grow strong. All of this work was done in unusually hot weather. The youngsters took much needed breaks by splashing around in the swimming pool; the elders sat in the shade gulping down iced mint tea. Everyone got hot, sweaty and very dusty.”
“And for the past month, as hot dry weather has continued to dominate our local area, I began and ended each day by watering those four blocks of milkweed. Today the rains did the watering for me, and moments ago, (fully clothed) I wandered around the blocks and, yes, all of a sudden it seems that these small plants have decided this is a good place to be and have sent their roots out into the native soil and are prepared to call this place ‘home’.
We don’t get paid dollars for doing this. What we get is priceless. One day, in many gardens around this area and scattered throughout the southwest, the most ephemeral of creatures – a butterfly – will lay her eggs on the milkweed that has been grown there especially for her, and the stunning caterpillar that emerges will have all the nourishment it needs right there. Soon thereafter, through the miracle of metamorphosis, a monarch butterfly will continue the northward journey. We may only get a fleeting glimpse of this whole cycle, but that’s OK – we just need, it seems, to know that we are part of a bigger whole that is life on earth.”
Very well said, Fiona!
July 2013 update:
It has been just over a year now, and things are looking very well indeed! We visited Fiona recently to see how the seed production was coming along, took some photos and video and wanted to share them with all of you.
There are several things that have been learned from this experience. First off, the milkweed is an on-going production plant, meaning that it doesn’t set all of its flowers at once. This means that there aren’t a crush of seed pods that need to be bagged (needing a crew or a bunch of hardy volunteers), but it does mean that there are little bunches of pods that always need bagging, so it is seemingly never done. Second, there is no real seed cleaning equipment available for the small scale grower to process and separate the seeds from the floss. There is equipment for the large seed grower that costs as much as some folks homes, but nothing for the smaller scale grower. We have known that as an heirloom seed company, as we’ve had to adapt other industry’s equipment and needs to serve our own. Third, there isn’t an established market for a regionally adapted milkweed seed of a specific species, as there hasn’t been any available up until this point in time.
Let’s look at how things have developed:
This is what a milkweed pod that has been bagged looks like. It is bagged to capture the “floss” or fluff that transports the seeds on the wind. This has to be done on an on-going basis, as the pods grow and begin to mature.
This is what good pollination will do for production, and really emphasizes the importance of all pollinators, but especially bees. Big black carpenter bees are what do the most effective pollination for Painted Lady Vineyard, as they get into the flowers and do a tremendous job that the smaller pollinators can’t.
This is one of the several butterflies that were visiting the milkweed the day we were there.
The star of the show appears: the carpenter bee!
Another view of this hard-working bee. Notice my hand in the background, holding the flower stalk steady as the wind was starting to pick up. The bee didn’t mind and let me get several close-up “glamour” shots! They are big enough to get down into the flower and do the pollination work that smaller insects just can’t reach. The flowers are quite stiff, and some insects will be damaged trying to get into these flowers as their legs get caught.
Here’s a short video showing what the field of milkweed looks like, as well as how Fiona and Brianna have worked together to determine how to separate the floss from the seeds.