The Monarch and the Milkweed

Sometimes it’s easy to forget that a plant has been around much longer than me. Ancestrally, that is. As with plants, as this article so succinctly puts it, organisms such as “the Monarchs have thousands of years of interaction with these plants and are well adapted to them.”

On the other hand, it’s hard to forget the fact inculcated from the early years of education that humans are a mere blip in Earth’s 4.5-billion-year history. And because of our brief, sentient time here on the third rock from the sun, it’s clearly taken some time to catch up.

Along with several studies released in the past few months, Nature World News reported that efforts to curb the loss of the Monarch butterfly population have been noble yet not entirely informed. Gardeners who took up the cause of planting certain kinds of milkweed – Asclepias, the plant vital to monarch breeding – actually unwittingly did more harm than good. Not to mention hasty bloggers as well.

Beautiful milkweed seeds, known to me in my childhood as "fish scales"

Beautiful milkweed seeds, known to me in my childhood as “fish scales”

By planting Monarch favorites, the butterflies stuck around longer, allowing the parasite, Ophryocystis elektroscirrha, to take advantage of the butterfly’s stagnant stay over the winter and wreak havoc on its well-being and, thus, inhibit its migration.

The solution, then, according to the majority of startlingly dated articles and a charity effort continuing to promote Monarch butterfly rehabilitation, is to plant not the milkweed species found in the butterfly’s final migration destination (such as tropical milkweed) but native species.

One Philadelphia-based blog suggested planting Asclepias tuberosa (Butterfly Weed), Asclepias incarnata (Swamp Milkweed), or Asclepias syriaca (Common Milkweed). Others have petitioned against companies responsible for engineering herbicide-resistant crops that in turn are killing off the Monarchs.

As always, I’m wont to donate to any cause, but I’ll ensure the milkweed seeds I collected during my trip to Pennsylvania are put to good use.


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