I am reminded of Michael Pollan’s premise in Botany of Desire every time I visit my milkweed patches. Are they manipulating me? Each spring, the trails I mow in our fields are delineated by the presence of milkweed. This has happened for years now, ever since I discovered the first small patch, arriving a few years after we bought the property and having a chance to grow due to what I have termed benign neglect – in other words, we just don’t mow as much as the previous owners. Now there are three areas of the property with large flourishing clumps of milkweed. I prefer to call this mutual nurturing for I am thrilled to have the milkweed here, but I’m not against entertaining the notion that it is a manipulation.
When I visit the milkweed patch I am primarily looking for monarch larvae because they are such an iconic species, because their population is in decline, and because each larva is a sign of hope to me. But the milkweed plant itself must signify hope for a myriad of other organisms, mostly insects, for I think of it as a hotel bustling with activity. I know of no other plant on our property (aside from tree canopies which I cannot visit) that is so well attended by insects.
There is an excellent book on the invertebrate community of the milkweed patch by Ba Rea, Karen Oberhauser and Michael Quinn called Milkweed, Monarchs and More: A Field Guide to the Invertebrate Community of the Milkweed Patch. It is an extensive overview and has been helpful to me in identifying our visitors.
Not only have we let the milkweed flourish over time by not mowing it, Chris has selectively cut out much of the wingstem (Verbesina alternifolia) and stickweed (Verbesina occidentalis), which while native, is aggressive and rarely seems utilized by insects. The pond field is becoming a nice mix of stickweed, milkweed, goldenrod, grasses, ironweed and various other plants I’ve yet to identify. I want the milkweed to get even denser if possible, keeping in mind that diversity is better. Besides, I do want a trail to the pond, so at some point, I will dictate where they grow. For now though, milkweed leads the way. It’s a win-win relationship for much of the Halcyon invertebrate community as well as its bipedal vertebrates.