I have been hunting for things since I was very young. Armed with a homemade net and a “sleeping can” (actually a coffee can with a plastic lid), my parents accompanied me on butterfly hunts along the weed-filled roadsides near our home in Hazle Township. My dad would help me to net the butterflies. He would hold them with their wings folded back and show them to me up-close then put them in the can. Upon entering the can the butterflies immediately fell asleep-permanently. They ended up mounted with colorful stickpins to a board covered in black velvet. Thank goodness I didn’t totally comprehend what happened to them.
As an adult, I became addicted to gardening and that lead me to see all kinds of insects. I was never really afraid of any of them. I guess the nature walks as a child instilled the sense of wonder in me rather than fear. A few weeks ago I exited my parked car in the lot of the local grocery store and as I went to close the door a dragonfly entered the car. I extended my arm inside to shoo it out and it landed on my wrist. I was totally surprised because in all my years, this has never happened to me even while sitting out by our pond where they dart around frequently. The dragonfly sat there for a few seconds even as I made gentle movements. I wondered why it landed on me, admired it and gently brushed it off. I knew there was a meaning to what had just happened because I know everything happens for a reason.
Over the past few years, I have been trying to increase the amount of milkweed plants that grow in our gardens. Milkweed Asclepias (spp.) is the larval host plant for the monarch butterfly Danaus plexippus. It’s a native to North America and grows in every state except Alaska. It is the only plant that the monarchs will lay eggs on and the only plant that the tiny caterpillars that hatch from those eggs can eat. Imagine, the only plant. Until fairly recently, milkweed was abundant in farm fields, along the roadsides and in hedgerows. But due to the increase in use of glyphosate herbicides on resistant crops like soybeans and corn, it is becoming less abundant. It is also eradicated from along roadsides, with many other weeds because of herbicide spraying as an increased roadside management practice. The only plant that the monarch butterfly needs to live is dwindling. What happens when there is not enough of it to provide for the monarchs as they make their annual migration from Mexico to Canada? The answer is not a pleasant one.
I began a crusade to protect every milkweed plant that I could locate on our property with the hopes that we would become a monarch resort! If plants were in the line of the mower, they were marked so they wouldn’t get cut. I collected seed and planted it everywhere. I knew that when the monarchs made their way northward on their annual migration they would have a safe chemical-free place in our gardens where they could lay eggs, and continue with their lifecycle and journey. I preached milkweed to visitors, garden tours, garden clubs, friends, family and the yoga community that uses our barn for their practice. I put up signs explaining how milkweed is needed for the lifecycle of these butterflies and explained its value for other pollinators as well. I organized a Milkweed Walk Workshop to educate others on the subject. I immersed myself in every detail of the monarch migration phenomenon and Asclepias (spp.).
In the midst of my crusade, my friend Matt stopped by as I was preparing information for the workshop. He questioned me as to why milkweed was so important. Having grown up in a farming family, he said that he could remember that milkweed was everywhere. It was a weed. I explained its eradication from farm fields and how it affected the monarch migration. A few days later Matt called me and was so happy to tell me that he in turn mentioned the milkweed issue to his family. A cousin who still farms told him that when the hedgerows get sprayed as part of the no-till farming method, there are large numbers of milkweed plants that are killed. His cousin said he never realized what he was doing to the monarchs. I was brought to tears. Matt actually cared enough about my cause to mention it to his family. The fact that we were able to educate someone else that can help to make a difference was beyond my expectations.
I did a little more research into the symbolism of the dragonfly and it’s said that when one lands on you it means you must tell the truth or find your true self. I believe that my truth is to teach others about the connection we have with everything in the universe. Everything we do has an effect on something else. Careless regard for nature and the continued abuse of the soil, forests and waterways is just the tipping point to a negative spiral of consequences that have not yet affected us.
It is mid-July here in our Pennsylvania garden and the monarchs still have not yet arrived. I’m concerned they may not. The milkweed is standing tall in full-bloom and our milkweed resort awaits those beautiful monarchs. As I quietly observe our lower field left in a natural state, I realize that I am more passionate about gardening for the wildlife than I am about gardening for the beauty. I do not know when this change occurred but I am certain that it happened for a reason.