There’s no doubt, many gardeners consider weeds to be annoying or even noxious plants. So if we were to pin a weed’s characteristics onto a human, chances are those traits would have a negative connotation. We might describe someone as being prickly as thistle or as irritating as poison ivy.
I’m fairly confident we all could find individuals among our circle of friends, family and co-workers who would fit those descriptions nicely. I know I can. But not all weeds are bad. Some have a rare, underlying beauty that may not always be apparent on the surface. Others are downright beneficial.
So if someone were to compare me to a weed, I’d hope it would be for one of those positive traits. In fact, if I were to emulate a weed, it would undoubtedly be the common milkweed. Notice how the word weed is embedded right in the name of this plant. Yet milkweed is far from an undesirable species.
Milkweed’s Environmental Impact
This plain-Jane of a plant holds the key for the continued survival of one this planet’s most beloved insects. That is, of course, the Monarch butterfly. This beautiful orange and black lepidopteran species can be seen gracefully swooping and fluttering across summertime backyards and fields throughout all but the highest elevations in the continental US.
As one of the few migratory species of insects, Monarch butterflies living east of the Rockies travel as far as 3000 miles to overwinter in the Sierra Madre mountains of Mexico. Those west of the Rockies travel to sunny, Southern California for their winter vacation. As remarkable as that sounds, none of these butterflies would be in existence if it weren’t for various native American milkweed species.
Milkweed leaves are the sole food of the black, yellow and white striped Monarch caterpillar. The adult female butterflies lay their round, white eggs on the underside of the leaves belonging to any of the various species of native milkweed.
The happy caterpillars hatch, live and grow on the milkweed plant until they reach approximately 2 inches (5 cm.) in length. Then they form a chrysalis before morphing into adult butterflies and flying away. If we could give anthropomorphic characteristics to a weed, I can only imagine how proud milkweed must feel for the role it plays in raising these fascinating creatures.
Stewardship of the environment is something many gardeners share. I recycle, grow organically and am aware of the carbon footprint I leave behind. Yet, as I gather aluminum cans, look to beneficial insects to solve my problems or think of ways to reduce needless trips to the grocery store, I can’t help but think that my own efforts pale in comparison to the sacrifice made by the common milkweed plant.