Production Blog

The Milkweed Movement

Pam Smith
By  Pam Smith , Crops Technology Editor
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Monarch larvae feed exclusively on milkweed before developing into magnificent butterflies that grace our gardens and pollinate plants. (DTN photo by Pamela Smith)

DECATUR, Ill. (DTN) -- Last summer I spent $5.95 plus tax to buy a common milkweed plant. In fact I bought several of them from a local nursery. AND I transplanted some milkweed from a local field into my flowerbed.

Please don't tell my father I've joined the milkweed movement. I already know his response will be: "You've lived in town too long." (Living within a 20 minute drive of a Dairy Queen makes you a townie in Dad's view.)

A good chunk of my childhood was spent ridding our farm fields of milkweed. The sticky, white, latex goo that came with each cut seemed to seep into the soul and glue hand to hoe. As we chopped, my father liked to relate his memories of how the government put out a wartime call to gather milkweed pods so the buoyant floss that filled them could be used to pack life preservers. In the sundrenched days of my youth, I remember hoping for a few escapes. I loved popping the pods open to find the seeds overlapping like scales, just waiting to be unfurled. Dried pods became boats to float down the creek and even decorated our Christmas tree.

Today, there is a new call to bring back milkweed to save the monarch butterfly. The larvae of these magnificent pollinators feed exclusively on milkweed in North America.

"Monarch butterfly populations are declining due to loss of habitat," said Chip Taylor, a University of Kansas University professor and director of Monarch Watch. "To assure a future for monarchs, conservation and restoration of milkweeds needs to be a national priority."

Studies of the annual cycle of the monarch population indicate that the most important region supporting this species is a corridor of milkweed and nectar resources that ranges from Texas to Minnesota. This passageway has been referred to as the I-35 corridor since this Interstate highway spans most of the region. Taylor said restoring the monarch population will require habitat restoration on a massive scale and it's not possible to do that without successfully engaging the farming community.

"It's really important that we understand the importance of using some of our marginal acres to provide diversity and support pollinators," he said.

As I found out last year, milkweed can be somewhat tough to establish. My expensive transplants sat there most of last summer and were questionable this spring. Taylor saidmilkweed requires about three years to get a good start and doesn't like a lot of competition. This week, I've noticed the plants have turned into a nature study as aphids have arrived, followed by lady beetles that I hope are plentiful enough to eat the aphids. The ants are already slurping up the aphid honeydew.

BASF has a program called Living Acres and is testing growing conditions in several locations this summer. I'll be reporting more on that as the summer progresses. Meanwhile, Luke Bozeman, a BASF Technical Market Manager, describes some of the ways to grow milkweed in this video: http://bit.ly/….

An infographic on recommended areas to plant milkweed can be found here: http://on.basf.com/…. Think carefully about placement since milkweed is herbicide sensitive and the idea is to provide a beneficial spot for pollinators, not to create a trap crop.

For now, I've got my plot located where I know Dad isn't likely to wander if he ever comes to "town." Mother will be more tolerant. Her observation will boil down to an "everything in life cycles" comment -- even milkweed, it seems.

For more information on monarch movements and how to grow milkweed go to: http://monarchwatch.org/…

Pamela Smith can be reached at Pamela.smith@dtn.com

Follow her on Twitter @PamSmithDTN

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Jay Mcginnis
6/20/2016 | 6:04 AM CDT
Both T. and Bonnie are right but just saying that isnt helping the monarchs or other wildlife that is being destroyed by human activity. In the meantime we need to quicly build habitats for pollinators .
BDukowitz1375121425
6/18/2016 | 7:24 PM CDT
Sorry T. Ban residential destruction and problem is solved.
TWilliams340486664
6/18/2016 | 11:26 AM CDT
Ban roundup and the problem is solved.
Jay Mcginnis
6/18/2016 | 7:43 AM CDT
I have been to the winter habitat for the monarchs in Mexico, amazing that the entire population travels there to fill only 80 acres fir the winter then fly back to the US and Canada to cycle through 2 generations before returning to the exact place. I am experimenting with 1.5 acres this year of polinator habiltat hoping to add 6 more acres in the future. This can be used in areas that you mow during the year as a means to cut back on mowing and reduce carbon emissions as well as help the monarch population. My fear is that long term the invasive perenials will return, one BIG solution for all is to make a Roundup tolerant milkweed!!!