Ana, my Oregon Tilthing, eco-village living sister is currently attending the EcoFarm conference up in Monterey and I’m not. I’d be more ok with this if she would share more of what she’s learning up there. If she virtually introduced me to some of the incredibly intelligent groundbreaking eco folks she’s enjoying sustainably-distilled vodka tonics with. See that? I’m ending sentences with “with.” I’m really worked up about this.
I did get one text from her. One. Cryptic. Text. It said only, “plant milkweed.”
Bio-dynamic juggernauts, sustainability panelists, and urban agriculture advocates as far as the eye can see and she’s telling me to, “plant milkweed.” Was it some kind of code? An eco-message that carried with it all the promise of the Year of the Woman?
Turns out, no. By saying, “plant milkweed,” she was actually suggesting that I plant milkweed. In a conference where there are, “…over 60 workshops featuring a comprehensive array of technical sessions for farmers, ranchers, handlers, marketers, activists, students, and educators,” if the one take away she shares is to plant milkweed, it must be pretty important. And it turns out, it is. From Monarch Watch:
Milkweeds have a unique and fascinating pollination mechanism in which the plant relies on Lepidoptera (butterflies and moths) and Hymenoptera (bees, ants, and wasps) for pollination. Hundreds of pollen grains are packaged into two connected sacs or pollinia, which is collectively referred to as the pollinarium [see SEM photo at right]. When a foraging insect lands on a flower, the pollinarium can easily attach itself to its leg. Once removed from the flower, the pollinia actually re-orient as the translator arms bend as they dry. Upon landing on another flower, the properly oriented pollinarium is deposited into a receptive stigmatic groove where the pollinia breaks down and the pollen germinates, growing pollen tubes through the stigma to the ovules in the ovary.
In short, it’s the equivalent of a Las Vegas buffet for bees and butterflies. It’s also the host plant for monarch butterflies, feeding their caterpillars and then sheltering the eventual chrysalis. It’s also a wild, foragable food. And you can apparently get free seeds from a woman in Florida. But here’s a list of people who sell both started plants and seeds.
Most info out there on milkweed pertains directly to the monarch butterfly, which is losing available habitat fast. And apparently Monsanto’s GE crops are killing them off at an alarming rate. But in a weird display of sad irony, the US Forest Service says that milkweed, “interferes with crops, and is an agricultural pest,” and then details what pesticides work best to eradicate it. I must have been living under a rock, but I thought the US Forest Service was in the business of maintaining habitat, not advocating its demise. That’s how the mission statement reads anyway.
Ana’s simple, cryptic text was more cryptic than I thought. And she probably knew I’d tumble down the rabbit hole on this, searching for a deeper meaning in her laconic, two word missive. It’s more than just planting a bee and butterfly friendly garden. It’s creating habitat and islands of safety for a species probably not long for this world. Those epic migrations of fluttering wings are, very soon, going to be a thing of our past.
It feels like an impotent thing to do in the face of Big Ag, government mission creep, pesticides, probable extinction and ecological collapse. But it’s something worth doing that needs doing. And it’s within my ability to plant seeds in more than just my garden.