Save the milkweed, save the monarchs
My field of dreams – a 60-foot-long oval patch of wild milkweed amid tall grasses on the back hill – is doing just fine, doing its job of providing food and home to threatened if famous monarch butterflies this summer.
I built it by doing something that I wish more landowners would think to do: Nothing. Park the mowers, sit on the porch swing instead.
In the spring I watched for the distinctive leaves of milkweed plants to emerge in my scruffy “grass” on the back hill, and I mow around the plants. As more and more emerged this year, I ended up with a giant patch of milkweed and tall grasses that have become a butterfly haven and great cover for cottontail rabbits. Each year this milkweed patch — which I cut in the fall, removing the tough dead stalks – grows denser and expands a bit more. Ten less minutes of weekly mowing for me.
Now the milkweed has matured, with tennis ball-sized, fragrant pinkish-red flower heads. And with that flowering have come the migratory monarchs. The ones I am seeing may represent the second or third generations of those that wintered down on a few acres of fir-clad mountainside in central Mexico.
I watched a pair of them in an aerial mating dance the other day above the patch, which is visited continually through the day right now by various monarchs. They will feed on the nectar of the flowers, lay eggs on the underside of the leaves. The emergent caterpillars will feed on the leaves. The last caterpillar stage will transform into a pupa, which matures inside an emerald green, gold-flecked chrysalis, which hangs from a milkweed leaf. It is an amazing transformation, especially the final stage of a fully formed monarch emerging from the chrysalid, which is the butterfly equivalent of a moth cocoon.
Other butterflies of note also are attracted to this “tall grass” milkweed plot, including red admiral, summer azure, viceroy, orange Sulphur, cabbage white. It makes for a colorful wild display.
The rabbits have been a welcome bonus. They like the protective cover of the tall, dense growth and venture in and out of the patch on their daily grazing rounds.
This is such a simple thing, letting it grow and refusing to mow. It is so critical, especially in Ohio, where state, county, and township mowing policies on roadsides and highway cloverleafs too often amount to little more than make-work for summer maintenance crews — and waste of time, machinery, and tax money. Even more importantly, it is a waste of potential wild plant and wildlife habitat. Highway crews don’t even compromise by mowing just the roadside half of a ditch; they scalp right to the edge of cropland or landscaping at the edge of public right-of-way. It is scorched-earth ignorance.
But since we cannot count on wisdom from government, we need to do what we can where we can, on our own land. Even if you live in a town or suburb, collect your neighbors and agree to leave corner patches for wild plants and wildlife. Reduce your mowing as much as you dare, relax more. Someday, maybe officialdom will get it too.