It won’t be long before an autumn ritual will begin – that is the cracking of the dry pods of milkweed and the seed-bearing white fluff escaping and catching the wind. The orange and black monarchs are wholly dependent on milkweed. The plant is the only host for their eggs and sole sustenance for the caterpillars, which feed on milky secretions from the leaves. Milkweed has been in rapid retreat, crowded by urban development, attacked along roadways, and driven from pastoral landscapes by the herbicide Roundup that spare resistant corn and soybeans, but not monarch butterflies.
As the plight of the monarchs became more pronounced, communities and school children planted patches of milkweed along roads and public buildings and in backyards to give the butterfly a fighting chance. Milkweeds have re-established themselves in many gardens including my own. I see a more Monarch butterflies every year. I hope they continue to return.
As the interest and concern for monarch butterflies has grown, making it the poster child of endangered insects, so has interest in milkweed, butterfly weed and others. Common milkweed and butterfly weed are two species of milkweed that have much in common. Both will attract butterflies to your property, with these plants the main magnet for the orange and black monarch butterfly in particular. Some differences in features exist in the two types of milkweed. You can grow both types of this milkweed on your own, either in your garden or elsewhere on your land.
Common milkweed or butterfly weed are native American plants that have gotten lots of attention for their relationship with monarch butterflies. The monarch butterfly makes its trip from the North to Mexico only feeding on milkweed. It's one of nature's miracle migrations as the delicate insect ranges over as many as 3,400 miles, as far as southern Canada, in a round trip that takes several generations to complete. Over coming months, the monarchs will get their fill, find their wings and flutter away south, setting up the harvest for the milkweed they leave behind.
Native plants offer the best support for Monarchs. The female Monarch lays eggs exclusively on plants in the Asclepias genus, (milkweeds) and the caterpillars that hatch feed exclusively on the leaves of milkweed plants.
Fall blooming plants provide a critical source of nectar during the fall migration of Monarchs to Mexico. Some of these plants include New England Aster, Purple Coneflower, Goldenrod, and Joe Pye Weed.
A New Industry - Monarch Plant Fibers
Farmers in Quebec and Vermont are using their fields to help restore the declining population of monarchs. These farmers began clearing land and taking out cash crops to a plant they'd previously seen as a nuisance. They are tapping a new market for milkweed fibers.
Nathalie Leonard of the Quebec village of Lac-du-Cerf said, “I hate to have milkweed in my strawberry field,” but now she growing 60 acres of milkweed for the sake of the butterflies and to turn it into a profit by using the fibers from the plant into silky fibers for high-end insulation material in winter clothing. After the Monarch caterpillars have their fill of the milky sap and find their wings in the fall, the plant's pods will be harvested for fine winter clothing and other commercial uses.
The milkweed makeover began when researchers in Quebec transformed the plant's silky fibers into a high-end insulation material for winter clothing and advanced other commercial uses for it, like sound insulation and absorption for oil spills. Winter coats stuffed with milkweed fiber reached outdoor retailers in 2016, fetching $800 or more apiece. Quartz Co. is the name of the Canadian manufacturer and retailer. After bumpy modest growth in 2017, the company is introducing its third generation of styles this fall. One of the real challenges is the development of harvesting techniques. The Canadian Coast Guard tried milkweed garb and liked it. And as a side benefit, the distinctive honey from milkweed fields is prized.
When University of Vermont agronomist Heather Darby first heard of Quebec's initiative, from a man who called looking for Vermont farmers to join, she was thrown. Milkweed is toxic to livestock — one study says it gives cows "profound depression" on the rare chance they eat it. She said, "Oh gosh, here's another one of those people with some crazy idea and he wants farmers to grow milkweed!" "But I listened."
After Darby learned that hundreds of Quebec acres were under milkweed production, she reached out to farmers in Vermont whom she considered innovators — people who would "want to listen, wouldn't laugh too hard, might try it out." Roger Rainville converted 50 prime acres of his farm lining the Canadian border to milkweed several years ago. Now, more than 100 farmers in Quebec and about a half dozen in Vermont are producing milkweed for Monark, of which Nathalie Leonard serves as president. It takes two or three years after planting milkweed for it to flower and produce the pods bursting with fluff. Once established, they can be irrepressible.
Efforts to restore monarchs rest in part in establishing new lands.