Is Milkweed an “Ugly Duckling?”

In a recent inquiry to FishersIsland.net, Union Chapel’s Rev. Candace Whitman asked, “I wondered if there were a place on the website for this “news item”. I was speaking with Charlie Ferguson’s daughter Julia today, and she and I lamented that milkweed (essential to the survival of monarch butterflies) is often removed or cut down because people don’t know what a precious resource it is.  I have attached a picture of what it looks like right now before blooming into purple flowers, and I thought maybe if people knew what was in their yards or roadside they might be tempted to preserve it.” So, we reached out to Justine Kibbe, the Conservancy’s Naturalist and she contacted Adam who kindly contributed this article.

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Milkweed in June on Fishers. Photo by Candace Whitman

Is Milkweed an “Ugly Duckling?” A Plea for Monarch Butterfly Habitat on Your Property

By Adam Mitchell, Department of Entomology and Wildlife Ecology, University of Delaware

Summer is now in full-swing, and as we tend to our gardens or prepare our properties for the warm months ahead, the last thing we want to see is another weedy plant within the ornamentals. Weeds are an undesirable addition to anyone’s garden, and even the term “weedy” brings to mind ugliness and repulsion. But can weeds be beautiful? Can weeds bring something beneficial to our gardens and to Fishers that our ornamentals cannot? For the monarch butterfly, the answer is a resounding “yes”!

The monarch butterfly, one of the most iconic species of butterfly in North America, once graced Fishers Island in the thousands as it migrated south in the Fall, congregating in huge flocks along Race Point. In the past two decades, however, the population of monarch butterflies has declined nearly 97 percent throughout the US, and the loss of its host plants are to blame. Monarch butterflies depend solely on one group of plants to complete their lifecycle—from egg to adult—and that group of plants are weeds—milkweeds to be exact.

Milkweeds, by definition, are “weedy”: they grow in abandoned fields, between crop rows in fields, and even along roadsides. Before we knew how important these plants were to the monarch butterfly, many people would mow them down or remove them from their gardens. Now that the monarch butterfly is near the brink of extinction, we seek the opposite: putting the milkweeds back. Here on the Parade Grounds, milkweeds are growing in where they weren’t seeded previously, and are a welcome addition to the island. But many more of these plants could be growing on your own property, and could provide habitat for the monarch butterfly and many other pollinators when it matures.

Milkweeds have leathery leaves that produce a milky sap (‘latex”) when they or the stems are broken, and often gather their flowers into a ball. When the flowers mature in the summer, they appear in many splendid colors, depending on the species—from purples to pinks to oranges—all of which can be observed on the island. The flowers provide nectar for not just the monarch butterfly, but many other butterflies and pollinators that the island sorely needs to keep its ecosystem alive.

As landowners, we want to have the right to determine what should stay on our property and what should go. However, as stewards of the island, we need to ensure that the bounty of nature that we grew up with is inherited to our children so that they may learn to appreciate it as well. Those fond memories of monarchs flocking to Race Point can be more than just a memory if we consider the importance those weeds in our gardens have for the island. Even a single milkweed plant in your yard can be a safe haven for monarchs and ensure their presence on Fishers. So the next time you are considering removing a few weeds, consider the monarch butterfly and how an ugly plant can bring something beautiful to your garden.

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Goldenrod is a fine species for monarch butterflies to use for nectar in the fall, but most people remove them from their gardens because they think they cause allergies. Photo by JT Ahrens

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