While walking after a winter storm, we came across these milkweed seed pods, still holding onto some seeds in January. The dried pods, silky seeds, and fresh snow created an engaging image. Milkweed are not plants that people usually add to their gardens. They are right up there with Joe-Pye Weed, Iron Weed, and Golden Rod with plants that most folks would delegate to road side ditches. For generations, these grew in wild places, and thrives in disturbed ground, such as ditches and abandoned fields.
But, with generations turning wild areas into farm fields and urban/suburban mono-cultures of grasses (wheat, corn, etc. are grasses, as well as lawns), the habitat for wild plants, animals, birds, and insects has been shrinking. Relying on commercial fertilizers under the expectations of greater yields per acre for grains, or greener lawns, is actually reducing the productivity of much of our soil. Two essential problems exist with most petroleum based fertilizers (e.g. from natural gas): these do not build up the organic matter in the soil, as would traditional manure based fertilizing; and, the chemicals tend to destroy the fungus in the soil that help to convert that organic mater into nutrients for plants (this is what Miracle-Gro is not telling you about their product).
The latest controversy in farming is genetically modified plants, specifically those designed to be combined with herbicide applications. Round Up Ready corn and soybeans have been out for about 15 years. These genetically modified plant can tolerate the fields being sprayed with Round Up that kills just about any other plant in the field. Without even getting into the questions about what happens to the Round Up that floats across the fence or into stream, of the questions about how genetically modified corn products are interacting with our bodies, one possible effect of all this corn in the mid-west is the loss of milkweed.
Milkweed used to grow in and around fields throughout the corn belt. Certainly, it’s poisonous sap was not desirable in corn silage. However, milkweed is essentially to th life cycle of monarch butterflies. It is the source for the butterflies to lay their eggs and the caterpillars to eat until they metamorphose to butterflies. Last summer, I came across a report that the monarch butterfly population, which summers in the mid-west, has recently plummeted. No habitat, not butterflies. Are we looking at our DDT of the 21st century?
The irony in this Round Up story is that Round Up ready has in 15 years made itself obsolete. It was so successful in eliminating the easy weeds that it has now encouraged, through manipulated natural selection, super weeds (aka pigweed that is invading southern farms). These are requiring hand-pulling, which was what herbicides were promoting that they would keep the farmer from having to do. Our desire for higher yields and less labor is short-sighted.
If you have a corner or more of your yard, collect a few wild seeds and let them grow. If you do not have a pile manure composting nearby, read your garden store bags carefully for organic products.