One of my favorite school memories is from one fall day in sixth grade. We had a baseball game going when a cloud of monarch butterflies stopped the game.
There must have been hundreds, maybe a thousand or more of these deep orange and black butterflies flying across the fields. They rested on the bats, our heads and shoulders and fluttered by on their way south. It was a time of wonder for few of us even knew what these butterflies were or that they migrated to Mexico for the winter.
A monarch butterfly sipping nectar from a swamp milkweed flower.
Since that time the wintering grounds of the monarch butterflies has been found and much of it is now protected in Mexico. People are more aware of these butterflies and their migration is tracked online every year.
Bad winter weather has hurt monarch populations over the last few years. The greatest threat to them is agriculture and lawns.
Common milkweed can grow eight feet tall and spreads through rhizomes. It has large leaves. Umbels of flowers hang from leaf nodes up and down the stem. The butterfly is a Great Spangled Frittilary.
In school monarchs are used to illustrate mimicry in animals. Insects are animals. The monarch has a terrible taste causing would be predators to ignore them after a single taste. Viceroy butterflies look a lot like monarchs but taste good. Predators who know how bad monarchs taste also ignore the viceroys.
Monarchs get that bad taste as caterpillars by eating milkweeds. This is all they eat. They store up chemicals in the milkweed leaves that can be toxic to grazers but definitely taste bad.
Purple milkweed is popular for monarch caterpillars in the spring. The plant is four to five feet tall with a branched single stem. An umbel of flowers tops each branch.
This is where the problem lies. Milkweeds are not grown commercially as crops. They are treated as weeds.
Most milkweeds are not good garden plants. Some don’t look impressive. Others spread.
So milkweeds are on the weed hit list. And as the milkweeds disappear, so do the monarch butterflies.
Swamp milkweed grows to five feet tall but does not spread. It’s deep pink flower umbels are numerous. This milkweed likes it wet.
Last year I saw three monarchs. Without help this number may soon come down to zero.
Monarch butterflies and milkweeds may not be commercially important but both are a gift to us. Gifts are special and should be respected and protected.
The Missouri Department of Conservation has started a program to help the monarchs by setting aside areas to grow milkweeds. This is a good idea but ignores one of the best places for milkweeds: roadside ditches.
Butterfly Weed is gaining in popularity as a garden flower. It blooms freely for a long period and does not send out runners.
As anyone who reads this commentary knows, I take a lot of wildflower pictures and many of them are of flowers found growing along the roads. This includes milkweeds such as Common, Purple, Swamp, Whorled, Butterfly Weed and Green.
Yet every year as the milkweeds are coming into full use for monarch caterpillars, the road crews come by and mow them down. Most milkweeds will not resprout after being so massacred.
There is good reason to mow the edges of the roads for visibility and motorists needing to change tires etc. There is no good reason to mow down plants growing more than four feet from the edge of the road or in the ditches until after killing frost in the fall.
Monarch caterpillars are easy to recognize. This one’s head is at the lower end as it eats a leaf on a common milkweed.
When Lyndon Johnson was president, his wife Ladybird tried to get states to realize that roadsides were the new prairies. Native wildflowers and plants depended on these areas to thrive. Planting them there made the roadsides beautiful and didn’t hurt the highways.
Please take notice and contact the Department of Conservation of all states asking them to put pressure on the road crews to stop cutting down these native plants. These areas are already growing milkweeds, cost nothing and it would be so nice to see wildflowers in place of endless, environmentally useless grass.