Vail Daily column: Milkweed for the mountains | VailDaily.com

Vail Daily column: Milkweed for the mountains

Amanda Hewitt
Curious Nature

This close-up of the showy milkweed shows the plant's blossom in all its splendor.

Milkweed is becoming a popular buzzword in the gardening community and the push to plant it in gardens and on public lands seems greater than ever. While admittedly the flower has a lovely bloom, why does milkweed get so much attention? It's all because of the monarch butterflies. Monarch butterflies are currently experiencing such a rapid decline in population that they are facing extinction. Deforestation and destruction of native habitats from the planting of crops and use of pesticides are causing a lack of plentiful vegetation for the long migratory journey that these delicate butterflies undertake.

Monarchs only lay their eggs on the backs of the milkweed leaf; it serves as food for the caterpillar and is therefore essential for the survival of the species. When the initial decrease in population was noted, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services took action, investing more than a million dollars to plant common milkweed along the Interstate 35 corridor from Texas to Minnesota to aid the monarchs on their easterly migratory path. Monarchs follow two relatively separate migratory route, split by the Rocky Mountains into easterly and a westerly paths.

Food for Wandering Souls

Experts currently contend that an abundance of milkweed in the Rockies could play vital role in supporting populations of the monarch butterfly on the westerly migratory path. While here in Eagle County, we do not lie in the migratory path of the monarch, stray butterflies do occasionally wander into the High Country. Planting milkweed here will provide food for these wandering souls, but it will also help to perpetuate the flower species itself.

Essential for Pollinator garden

There are several species of milkweed that are native to Eagle County, and they make colorful additions to any flowery tract of land you might be nurturing. Native showy milkweed, with round silvery green leaves and clustered pink flowers, is essential for any pollinator garden. The beautiful pink and white flowers, sweet nectar and pleasant aroma attract bees, hummingbirds and other butterflies, demonstrating milkweed's beneficial properties for an array of pollinators. The showy milkweed does particularly well here in the Eagle Valley because of its drought tolerant and deer resistant properties.

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Riparian buffer plant

The swamp milkweed has narrower leaves and pinkish purple flowers that grow into round umbels, or clusters. Once the flowers bloom, the seeds appear, attached to silver-white wisps, giving the flower the look of dramatic movement. The swamp milkweed, also native to the Eagle Valley, is crucial for any rain garden. The long root structure allows the plant to withstand long periods of drought and sitting water. Rain gardens filter water entering streams and rivers while slowing down the runoff and reducing erosion. Milkweed's ability to filter pollutants makes it an excellent riparian buffer plant as well.

How to Plant Milkweed

When considering planting milkweed, remember that it grows like a weed. Pick a place that you are open having taken over. Give your milkweed space so that it can grow and flourish without encumbering other plants in your garden. Milkweed can also grow up to four feet tall, making it excellent cover for the back of the garden. While more than a hundred species of milkweed exist, not all thrive in Eagle County; when purchasing milkweed, look for butterfly, showy, irresistible or swamp milkweed to be sure that you are planting native species.

Interestingly, a single monarch does not make the entire journey north. The adults stop and reproduce at different points along their route and it can take three to four monarch generations to finish a single migration. If a species like the butterfly can cooperate in its migration from one generation to the next, then it gives me hope that we as a society can do the same, learning from our elders and avoiding the mistakes of the past. If you want to learn more or get involved in efforts to protect the monarch, several citizen science groups exist to track the movement of the species. To find out more about some of these groups, visit the U.S. Forest Service website at http://www.fs.fed.us. They might even send you free milkweed seeds.

Amanda Hewitt is the STEM coordinator at Walking Mountains Science Center and a lover of pollinators.