ARTICLE

In Iowa: Milkweed worth the work

Monarchs symbolize beauty, vulnerability of nature

A monarch butterfly rests on a flower in the Butterfly House during the Johnson County Fair on Wednesday, July 24, 2013,
A monarch butterfly rests on a flower in the Butterfly House during the Johnson County Fair on Wednesday, July 24, 2013, in Iowa City. (Liz Martin/The Gazette-KCRG)

Until Monsanto comes out with Roundup Ready milkweed seed, we all would do well to grow the monarch butterfly-sustaining plant in our yards and gardens.

Back when we used to see the charismatic orange and black butterflies often enough to almost take them for granted, they looked like they were just flitting about, floating wherever the wind willed.

But they were on a mission, looking for milkweed, the only plant upon which monarch caterpillars feed, the only plant upon which the butterflies lay their eggs.

Without milkweed, which has been largely expurgated from the row crop fields that make up almost two-thirds of Iowa’s landscape, monarch populations have declined about 90 percent in the past two decades.

Their decline corresponds with the ascendance of Monsanto’s Roundup Ready technology, in which corn and soybeans have been genetically modified to withstand the herbicide glyphosate, a potent killer of milkweed.

The scarcity of milkweed in Iowa and other grain belt states creates a perilous gap in the monarch’s amazing annual migration, which spans several generations, with no single butterfly completing the round trip.

Several recent developments, however, suggest that monarch admirers will not passively accept the demise of the butterfly that for many symbolizes both the beauty and vulnerability of nature.

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Last month the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which is considering whether to protect monarchs under the Endangered Species Act, launched a campaign to save them.

Here in Iowa, conservation groups, agricultural interests and researchers have formed the Iowa Monarch Conservation Consortium, a statewide effort to encourage the cultivation of milkweed in an effort to stem the butterfly’s decline.

And concerned individuals are not only growing milkweed and raising butterflies but also forming groups such as Monarchs in Eastern Iowa, which encourage and help others to do so.

Started a year ago, the group now has 197 members, one of whom, Bruce Bachmann of Cedar Rapids, personally raised and released more than 100 monarchs.

Bachmann said he regularly examines the undersides of his milkweed leaves for larvae, which he then nurtures in clear containers until the butterfly emerges from its chrysalis. This practice, he said, greatly increases the likelihood of a larva reaching adulthood.

Another member of that group, Becki Lynch, helped establish a butterfly garden at Cedar Rapids’s Noelridge Park that since has become an official monarch way station.

For a so-called weed, milkweed is not the easiest plant to grow, but it is well worth the effort, according to Lynch, an ISU Extension master gardener.

As with many other perennials, the seeds of milkweed should be stratified — subjected to cold and moisture — for several weeks before they are planted in full sun, said Howard Bright, proprietor of Ion Exchange of Harpers Ferry, a producer and purveyor of native plants and seed.

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Bob Copeland, a sales consultant at Prairie Moon Nursery in Winona, Minn., said Iowans planting milkweed seed this spring should do so early, around April 1, to give seeds time to stratify naturally in cool, damps soil. Seeds planted in May or later should be artificially stratified for a few weeks in cool, damp conditions before planting, he said.

Bright said demand for milkweed seed and root plugs has increased dramatically in recent years as people rally to support monarch butterflies.

“It’s very hot right now. Everybody is alarmed about the monarch decline,” said Copeland, whose company includes a free packet of milkweed seeds with every order.

As a lifelong gardener and sworn enemy of velvetleaf and lambsquarters, I came late to the milkweed party, perhaps put off by the “weed” in its name.

Finally realizing, however, that the common milkweed is neither common nor a weed (unless you’re raising corn and soybeans) and that monarchs have become collateral damage in that enterprise, I recently ordered a substantial shipment of root plugs.

With monarchs alighting on their sweet-scented lavender flowers and pale green oval leaves, they will outshine anything else in my garden.

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