The monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus) population has been declining precipitously, in large part because the milkweed plants that the monarch caterpillars feed on are being destroyed. A number of organizations have encouraged the public to grow milkweed in their yards to offset some of this destruction.
On a November’s day walk through a Southborough field, we collected a few milkweed pods that hadn’t yet released their seeds. I separated the seeds from the cotton and placed the seeds in the refrigerator for a few months.
In mid-March, I removed the seeds and soaked them in warm water, planting them in a biodegradable tray. It took a while for the seeds to sprout. Perhaps they were waiting for warmer temperatures (our house is rather cool during the winter). The seedlings were up by May and I planted them outdoors on May 6.
Meanwhile, I was offered some milkweed seedlings from a friend in Litchfield, New Hampshire. These plants grew as a weed in her back yard and were about to be removed. I gladly took them but, even though they bled white sap like milkweeds, I was unable to identify them to species. They had narrower leaves, branched a lot, and new plants sprouted from extended roots. Turns out those plants are not milkweed, but hemp dogbane (Apocynum cannabium). Hemp dogbane is native and I’m waiting to see if it attracts any insects.
Meanwhile, the common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) plants, although healthy, were growing slowly. I planted them to create a waystation to attract monarchs, but I have a tiny yard on a busy street. They say that if you plant milkweed, the monarchs will come. But would they? I hadn’t seen a single monarch in the yard.
Yesterday, I noticed that the milkweed leaves had small holes in them. I took a closer look and saw what looked like a white egg mass near the holes.
And then, voila, I found a couple of baby monarch caterpillars!
I hope that the caterpillars have enough leaves to munch on. I’ll keep you posted on their development. Thanks to Chris, Betsy, and Carol for the seeds and plants!