Thursday, September 07, 2006

The Monarch & The Milkweed



Did you know that Monarch Butterflies DEPEND ON Milkweed as the ONLY plant on which they will lay their eggs? I didn't. Someday, someone will write a story on how Monsanto, McDonald's, and 'Roundup' killed the butterflies of the world.

The Monarch and the Milkweed
By Roxana Robinson
September 6, 2006

NEAR MY back door is a tall, straggly plant, with an awkward shape, nearly colorless flowers. If you saw it you'd think it was a weed, and you'd be right. I planted it.

When I put in plants, I hope they'll thrive. I hope they won't be shredded by insects -- which is a risk in my garden. I don't use toxic chemicals, and it's always a race to see which comes first, the end of summer or the end of the garden. I'm tempted by chemicals: a quick misting and the aphids are gone, the walk, weed-free. Still, I don't use them. Their smooth eradicatory sweep makes me uneasy: nature works in messy ebbs and flows, but it's always worked. The wheat farmers of Sicily, for example, breadbasket of the Roman Empire, managed fine without Ortho. In my garden (and many others), plants thrive without chemicals, as they have since the first human planted the first yam.

Synthetic chemicals are newcomers: it's only about 50 years since they've been widely used by backyard gardeners. Now they're everywhere, their cheery labels carrying ominous small-print warnings. No one knows the long-term consequences. On summer evenings children used to run alongside the DDT truck, letting its cool spray coat their arms and legs.

When small green caterpillars attacked my roses, I used Bacillus thuringiensis, a naturally occurring organism that attacks caterpillars' intestines. It doesn't affect vertebrates and breaks down without a trace. It sounds safe.

I hope my homely back-door plant will thrive, but not that the insects will leave it alone: actually, I want it ripped to shreds. The plant is asclepius syriaca, the common milkweed, and the destructive visitor I hope for is Danaus plexippus, the monarch butterfly.

The ember-colored monarch may be the most beautiful of all butterflies; certainly it's the most famous. Every fall, all the monarchs in the Northern Hemisphere make remarkable journeys. The West Coast ones head for California, the East Coasters -- including mine in Maine -- fly to Mexico. No one knows how they survive the buffeting thumps of airplane traffic, or El Nino.

Most monarchs live about six weeks. The last generation, hatching in the fall, is called Methuselah, and lives from six to nine months. The Methuselahs fly to the winter retreat, though no one knows how they find it, since they've never been there.

Milkweeds are the only plants on which monarchs lay eggs. Larvae -- caterpillars -- hatch, and eat the leaves. The caterpillar forms a chrysalis, which forms the butterfly. Every monarch on the planet depends on milkweed.

Click 'Read More' below to finish article.

In the mornings, on my milkweed, there are monarchs. Brilliant, fire-colored, their wings pulse slowly, in and out. On the leaves, the torpid caterpillars eat their way toward splendor.

You used to see milkweeds everywhere -- ditches, fields, empty lots. In the fall, they produce a thick brown pod, tightly packed with seeds, filmy white fibers. You see them seldom now.

We're eradicating milkweed. It produces cardenolide alkaloid, which disagrees with cattle. Cattle farmers dislike it. Crop growers dislike it because it's a weed. Traditionally, weeds were tilled under. It's probably what the Sicilians did. Tilling eliminates most weeds, though some survive. Until now, it wasn't possible to eradicate a plant altogether.

Most monarch/milkweed habitat occurs in farmland, vanishing at nearly 3,000 acres a day. The remaining habitat, mostly owned by agribusiness, increasingly grows genetically modified (GM) corn and soybeans. GM crops resist glyphosphate, the active ingredient in RoundUp. Milkweed cannot. The GM switch meant the loss of 80 million acres of monarch habitat. Roadside milkweeds are eradicated by townships, backyard milkweeds by anyone who uses herbicides. Even organic gardeners are implicated -- remember those tiny caterpillars, and the Bt?

The monarch and the milkweed will vanish. Everyone knows that economics come before beauty, commerce before conservation. Everyone knows that everything legal is safe.

Or maybe we all don't know this. Maybe we think nature, with its messy ebbs and flows, has value. Maybe we're not sure that a few big companies should eradicate whole species. Maybe we're not certain that GM crops should predominate, playing an unknown role in our children's health.

We can write letters, quit using herbicides, reject GM crops. We can plant milkweed. For a while, monarchs will appear, airborne jewels, landing dreamily on our plants as though this were the only place on earth they want to be.

Which it is.


Roxana Robinson is a novelist and nature writer. Her most recent novel is `Sweetwater."

Simply Recipe's "Italian Sausage Spaghetti"

"My religion consists of a humble admiration of the illimitable superior spirit who reveals herself in the slight details we are able to perceive with our frail and feeble mind."
--Albert Einstein/kcc

1 Comments:

Blogger ladylinoleum said...

I always learn something new from you Kim. Love that.

2:24 PM  

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