by David Salman
Feeding Our Winged Royalty
WASHINGTON — The annual overwintering count of monarch butterflies released today shows a modest population rebound from last year’s lowest-ever count of 34 million butterflies, but is still the second lowest population count since surveys began in 1993. But the 56.5 million monarchs currently gathered in Mexico for the winter still represents a population decline of 82 percent from the 20-year average — and a decline of 95 percent from the population highs in the mid-1990s.
“The population increase is welcome news, but the monarch must reach a much larger population size to be able to bounce back from ups and downs, so this much-loved butterfly still needs Endangered Species Act protection to ensure that it’s around for future generations,” said Tierra Curry, a senior scientist at the Center for Biological Diversity.
“Despite this small increase, monarch populations are still severely jeopardized by milkweed loss in their summer breeding grounds due to increasing herbicide use on genetically-engineered crops,” said George Kimbrell, senior attorney for Center for Food Safety. “We will continue to do everything we can to ensure monarchs are protected under the Endangered Species Act.”
The butterfly’s dramatic decline has been driven in large part by the widespread planting of genetically engineered crops in the Midwest, where most monarchs are born. The vast majority of genetically engineered crop acres are in varieties made to be resistant to Monsanto’s Roundup herbicide, a potent killer of milkweed, the monarch caterpillar’s only food. The dramatic surge in the use of Roundup and other herbicides with the same active ingredient (glyphosate) with Roundup Ready crops has virtually wiped out milkweed plants in Midwest corn and soybean fields. In the past 20 years it is estimated that these once-common, iconic orange-and-black butterflies may have lost more than 165 million acres of habitat — an area about the size of Texas — including nearly a third of their summer breeding grounds.
Press release from the Xerces Society January 27, 2015. Read the entire article at www.xerces.org
It's truly astounding that our beloved Monarch butterfly is imperiled and faces the real threat of extinction. As American agribusiness continues it to expand the development and use of GMO, herbicide and pesticide intensive crops, we are now seeing its direct effects on the health of our natural world and the creatures that live in it.
Let's not let the Monarch become the next passenger pigeon, whose vast numbers once darkened the sky when huge flocks would fly overhead. As gardeners, we can and must make a concerted effort to reverse this loss of habitat by planting Milkweed (Asclepias) to help feed the Monarch's caterpillars put in peril by corporate profits and disregard for our planet.
A Primer To Making your Milkweed Planting Efforts Successful
While there are many species of Asclepias, a widespread genus throughout North America, it is recommended that we concentrate our efforts on growing five primary non-tropical species of Milkweed:
- Orange Butterfly Weed (Asclepias tuberosa) - a tap-rooted species that requires a fast draining sandy soil, unless you plant the clay form or 'Western Gold' forms which grow in uncompacted, non-moist clay soils.
- Showy Milkweed (A. speciosa) - a fast growing stoloniferous species from the western US with large pink flower heads.
- Common Milkweed (A. syriaca) - a fast growing stoloniferous species with large pink flower heads.
- Swamp Milkweed (A. incarnata) - an attractive species with fiberous roots and pink or white flowers that grows in swampy to medium-moist soils.
- Sullivan's Milkweed (A. sullivantii) - a rarer Mid-Western species that is slowly stoloniferous with large pink flower heads.
For the ornamental garden, Orange Butterfly Weed, Swamp Milkweed and Sullivan's Milkweed are considered the best varieties. Showy Milkweed and Common Milkweed are aggressively stoloniferous (spreading by underground roots) and are best planted in peripheral areas of the landscape such as along drainage ditches and unused portions of your property where their weediness won't be a problem.
Seeding Milkweed into Your Landscape
Neil Diboll, founder of Prairie Nursery in Wisconsin, and a pioneer of prairie restoration says this about seeding Asclepias: "Seeds of all the members of the genus Asclepias that I have worked with benefit from a 30 day Moist Stratification period to break seed dormancy. The seeds germinate best under warm soil conditions. They can be successfully seeded in fall as a “dormant seeding” to improve germination in spring. (Fall planting after frost will provide necessary cold stratification.) All species (A. tuberosa, A. syriaca, A. sullivantii, A. incarnata) will also germinate moderately well when seeded into warm ground in mid to late spring with only Dry Stratification treatment."
Seeds can be moist stratified by mixing seed with moist (not soggy) sand in a zip-lock plastic bag and placed in the refrigerator for 30 days. After 30 days of cold moist storage, the seed's natural chemical germination inhibitors have dissipated and are ready to sprout. Dry stratification is done by placing dry seed in the refrigerator for 30 or more days.
Planting Potted Asclepias Plants Into Your Landscape
With exception of Orange Butterfly Weed, the other four species transplant readily as actively growing or dormant plants. Orange Butterfly Weed on the other hand has a deep growing tap-root and is much more finicky about the soil in which it prefers to grow. The most commonly available Butterfly Weed seed of this species is grown from populations originating east of the Mississippi and must be grown in sandy, low fertility, acidic soil. It will refuse to grown in heavier, compost enriched loam, clay-loam and clay soils. Mis-matched soil is the most common reason gardeners have difficulty getting A. tuberosa to grow successfully.
To solve this problem, High Country Gardens sells two distinct selections:
- 'Western Gold' is grown from seed originally collected in western CO where it grows in drier, alkaline soils. It is the best choice for drier climates with heavier, higher pH soils common in the western half of the US.
- Clay form is a unique strain originally found growing in a clay field near Madison, WI where it was rescued from impending construction project. The original plant found its way into the capable hands of Neil Diboll who propagated this unique find and introduced into cultivation.
Lauren Springer Ogden, renowned author, gardener and landscape designer recommends that Orange Butterfly Weed be transplanted before the heat of summer (April-May) or in the fall. She has observed that the combination of wet roots and hot daytime temperatures favor root rot from soil pathogens. She also points out that this species is "highly soil-specific depending on the strain you grow". Lauren also relates that the plants are susceptible to pill bugs. "They will chew where the root meets the crown. And they love warm moist conditions". Another reason to not wait to plant in the heat of summer and not to mulch. This plant is happiest growing in bare, uncovered ground.
Easy on the Water
Orange Butterfly Weed is also sensitive to growing in damp soil, especially after transplanting. Yellow, chlorotic foliage is usually an indication of over-watering. I recommend that new transplants be watered thoroughly after the initial planting. After the initial watering, wait until the plant begins to wilt slight before watering thoroughly again. Once you see new growth, a good soaking every 5 to 10 days will be sufficient. Once established, which happens in a few months, the plants may not need much additional water unless conditions are hot and dry. For those of us with drip systems, be sure to place the emitter off to the side of the planting hole so the roots won't sit in overly wet soil.
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