January is the month that seed catalogs arrive and gardeners scrutinize them, fantasizing about rows of wholesome vegetables and beds of lavish, maybe exotic, flowers.
Some gardeners might order seeds to grow “easy, heavy-bearing, carefree vines” of giant loofah gourds, Luffa aegyptiaca, intending to gift luxurious bath sponges to cousins and friends the next Christmas. (No, it didn’t work out.)
Yesterday I found these few remaining seeds, stuck in a dried pod, overlooked by the birds and wind. They are of the common milkweed plants I put in my garden last spring, trying to do my part to help the Monarch butterfly. Populations of milkweed and Monarchs are both in serious decline.
Common milkweed, Asclepias syriaca, is a host plant for the North American Monarch butterfly, Danaus plexippus, famous for their amazing migratory journey. They will use all species of milkweed, and only milkweed, to lay their eggs, from which the tiny caterpillars hatch and begin chomping away on the leaves. Conservationists encourage us to plant milkweed for the Monarch butterflies.
However, it is important to plant milkweed species that are native to your area. Scientists believe that many well-meaning gardeners are planting a readily available, very attractive, non-native, tropical milkweed (Asclepias curassavica). This plant blooms longer, keeps monarchs in northern areas too long, and is detrimental to their life-cycle and health.
If you are thinking about planting milkweed, a good place to find out about species native to your area is at The Xerces Society.
Monarch Watch, a non-profit organization that focuses on the Monarch butterfly, is another great place for much information about milkweed and the Monarch butterfly.