One of the most dreaded words for any gardener, other than gophers, is weeds. Weeds make lawns and gardens look messy and untended and are an embarrassment to the people responsible for the yard work. There is no question that the neighbors will notice. Weeds need to be pulled.
This mindset puts milkweed in a dangerous position. Since it has weed in its name, people are forever going to get itchy fingers when it comes to the decision to leave a milkweed plant that springs up or to yank it out. In one article I read about milkweed, it was described not as a weed but as a natural wonder. I have to agree, since it’s the host plant for the monarch butterfly and a critical part of its life cycle.
A very simplified description of the stages of monarch butterfly development is from the egg laid on the underside of the milkweed leaves, to the hatched caterpillar, chewing the milkweed leaves, hanging from a branch and spinning its chrysalis, to the monarch butterfly that finally emerges.
There were once abundant milkweed plants in the area of the Santa Lucia Mountains where we live — just northeast of Cambria. When we first moved here, we saw the numerous plants that still thrive along the dirt road up near the ridge. Once I learned the importance of these plants to the monarch butterfly, I vowed to encourage their growth in our yard. Our first year here, I gathered seed pods from milkweed plants during the late summer. When the pods dried, they exploded with seeds that the wind carried through our meadow.
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The following spring, I watched excitedly for the first hints of the milkweed plants, but it took a few years before any of the seeds germinated. The sight of our first tiny plants filled me with joy. Never did I imagine then that we would end up with a growing forest of milkweed, marching up the bank outside our living room windows.
There are over 20 varieties of milkweed across the U.S. The variety in our yard is Asclepias eriocarpa with its broad, fuzzy, grey-green leaves and creamy colored clusters of blossoms. In spite of the extreme drought we are experiencing now, our milkweed plants are as beautiful as I’ve ever seen them, without our having to give them a drop of water. Our oldest plants have grown to nearly five feet tall this year.
Each summer, the established plants grow bigger and more impressive. Each spring, we have seen a gradual increase in the number of our plants, even though they are still clustered near the area where we released the first seeds.
The Central Coast is blessed to be along the migration route of the monarch butterfly. When we encourage the plants that support the life cycle of the monarchs, we not only help the butterflies, but we also give ourselves the gift of their brilliant, fragile beauty.