In Iowa: Monticello yard cultivates milkweed, and a fuss

City could be more monarch-friendly by affirming just two words

Michael Felton of Monticello places a caterpillar on a milkweed plant at his house in Monticello on Friday, Sept. 2, 2016. Felton is growing milkweed and has a Monarch Watch Monarch Waystation at his house. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)
Michael Felton of Monticello places a caterpillar on a milkweed plant at his house in Monticello on Friday, Sept. 2, 2016. Felton is growing milkweed and has a Monarch Watch Monarch Waystation at his house. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)

Right is on the side of Monticello milkweed grower Michael Felton, who for the second time in the past eight years has been ordered to comply with milkweed-averse city ordinances.

City officials targeting Felton at the behest of an anonymous complainant will, I believe, eventually recognize the value of the misnamed plant and amend their nuisance ordinance accordingly.

In the meantime, Felton — who, according to his wife, Nancy, wept when city officials forced him to remove hundreds of plants from his property in 2009 — will continue to tend his remaining plants and set an environmental stewardship example.

The officials recently notified Felton that his plants are a “noxious weed” in violation of state and city code and that he had 10 days to remove the milkweed from his yard and an adjacent public right of way.

After he provided documentation that the state does not consider milkweed a noxious weed, and after he removed plants that could be considered obstructions to the safety of motorists, the city turned to its nuisance ordinance, which forbids weeds in residential areas to exceed 8 inches in height.

At a City Council meeting Tuesday night, Felton defended his efforts to help monarch butterflies stave off extinction, asserting that milkweed is not a weed at all but rather a native flower upon which the imperiled monarch depends for its survival.

“How do I get the city to accept that and support efforts to save the monarch?” asked Felton, whose property has been designated a monarch way station by Monarch Watch, a leading monarch conservation group.

Council member Tom Yeoman said city officials were not taking an adversarial position and that if Felton “is really serious about this, we can solve your problem.”

He invited Felton to move his milkweed rearing efforts to municipal property “that would be better than your front yard.”

Yeoman’s proposed solution might be better for the complainant but not for Felton, who spends time each day nurturing, monitoring and enjoying his milkweed and the insect life it attracts.

As a matter of convenience, Felton said he would “rather just leave it where it is.”

Besides milkweed, Felton also cultivates coneflowers, another native wild flower, as a source of nectar for monarchs. When he asked what he should do with one problematic clump of coneflowers, council member Rob Paulson blurted, “Roundup,” almost as if he doesn’t understand that widespread spraying of the herbicide on crop fields is the main reason milkweed has largely disappeared from the landscape.

By now we all know that farmers can’t change their herbicide-dependent production methods if they are to continue to feed the world’s growing population, which is why Felton and many others believe that cities, in which the use of herbicide is not an economic imperative, should encourage milkweed-filled sanctuaries for monarchs.

“It’s all about perception,” City Council member, Brian Wolken said. “You say it’s a garden. I don’t agree. It’s a look some people are not comfortable with.”

A weed is commonly defined as a wild plant growing where it is not wanted and in competition with cultivated plants. Contrary to its name, whose last four letters carry unsavory connotations for people who hate weeds (myself included), milkweed does not qualify.

Apart from its status as the sole bulwark between monarchs and extinction, it is, as Felton asserts, a native wild flower whose foliage and blooms are as attractive to most people as they are to butterflies. It is no more invasive than any other plant with a genetic bent to reproduce itself. And in a world in which weeds are free, people (myself included) pay good money for milkweed plants.


Rather than insist that Felton cut or move his habitat, the City Council should amend its nuisance ordinance, which could be easily accomplished by adding two words: except milkweed.



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