Meet the Natives: Common Milkweed, part two

A pasture such as the one shown above could easily be overrun by common milkweed, ruining its value as food for livestock.

Click here for part one.

BANS ON COMMON MILKWEED, a plant that is vitally important to the monarch butterfly, are a sad reminder that the needs of humans and the needs of wildlife do sometimes conflict. However, this dilemma also gives us a chance to explore ways of trying to meet the needs of both. One important lesson is that gardeners in cities, suburbs, and other areas where there is not a lot of agriculture going on have a vital role to play--if they can get over their all-too-common obsession with "neat and tidy" landscaping practices.

The (Sad) Case for Milkweed Bans

Monarchs are threatened, but so are small farms. And as a resident of farm country, I cannot help but recognize that common milkweed might pose a threat to my neighbors' livelihoods.

There is a large (but family owned) dairy farm where I live, for example. The cows seem to be treated well, with access to pasture throughout the growing season. For winter feeding, the farmer cuts hay on a number of local properties. If these fields were to become infested with milkweed (which could easily happen if someone were to introduce it to the area), this hay would be useless. The only way to keep milkweed out of the pastures would be to use one of the few herbicides that's effective on this plant, a solution that would be expensive and that I doubt anyone in the community would want.

This is why several Canadian provinces have passed bans on common milkweed. (But please don't get the idea that Canadians are backward. As far as I've been able to find out, the main reason such bans are almost nonexistent in the United States is that U.S. farmers use more herbicides, making the bans unnecessary.) I think this is excessive, using a chainsaw where a scalpel would be the ideal tool. But I grudgingly admit that I understand how the bans came to be passed.

The Possibility of Compromise

Canada isn't oblivious to the potential impact of these bans on monarch butterflies. Thus far, most of the provinces seem to have dealt with the dilemma by using selective enforcement. In other words, the bans are on the books for use when milkweed becomes a problem, but they aren't enforced unless somebody complains. For example, in 1996 a researcher for the Monarch Watch organization was told that in Ontario, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba, milkweed was being controlled only on a "complaint" basis. Only Nova Scotia had an active eradication program at that time.

Ontario has taken this policy one step further by publicizing its policy of tolerance. In a FAQ at the Ministry of Agriculture website, the province explains, "As long as the population of milkweed planted doesn't negatively affect agricultural or horticultual land by spreading seed and new vegetative plant material (i.e. root stock) into fields, nurseries or greenhouses then it is acceptable to plant milkweed in your garden. It is recommended that you consult with your local weed inspector and/or neighbours so that all parties involved are comfortable that the impact to agriculture or horticulture is negligible."

This is laudable up to a point, but of course any gardener familiar with the Deborah Dale case can see the pitfall: All you need is one complaint by one uninformed neighbor, and the monarch habitat you've been lovingly cultivating will be toast.

Better Options

A better option would be for the authorities to start making more fine grained, more informed discriminations. If a plant is a genuine problem in agricultural areas, for example, perhaps it should be controlled in those areas. But that doesn't mean that it should be banned from areas where there are no farms. On the contrary, property owners in those areas should be encouraged to plant milkweed and other native plants with value for wildlife, all the more so if the plants are banned in certain agricultural zones. In fact, milkweed is an excellent example of why it is so important for people in urbanized areas to create wildlife oases in their own backyards.

Mind you, I'm not saying that I support bans on native plants. What I support is creative compromise, a search for ways of meeting both the needs of humans and the needs of wildlife without causing too much damage to either one. One possibility is to ban certain plants in agricultural areas only, while encouraging or even mandating the creation of wildlife oases in urban zones. But that's not the only option.

Another might be the "lemons into lemonade" approach: Why not turn a plant such as milkweed into a commercial crop? Common milkweed has been cultivated in Europe as a source of fibers* that can be used to make paper, cloth, rope, or a soft insulating material that was used in life jackets during World War II. The flowers have been used to make wine.

The point, again, is that we can find solutions to (apparent) conflicts, as long as we are open to creative compromise. What we cannot afford is simplistic solutions or solutions that pit one group, such as farmers, against another group, such as wildlife lovers. If that happens, both will lose.

* According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, "Milkweed stems are collected after the stalks senesce in late fall-early winter. The dried stalks are split open to release the fibers; milkweed fibers are sometimes mixed with fibers of Indian hemp (Apocynum cannabinum). The bark is removed and the fibers released by first rubbing between the hands and then drawing the fibers over a hard surface. Twisting the fiber opposite each other and twining them together forms the cord. Often this is accomplished by rolling the fibers on the thigh while twisting them together."

1 comment:

Linda H. said...

You may already know... showy milkweed and common milkweed are being cultivated now in IL, IA and other states for fiber and seed.
and Ogallala comfort company.

Dr. Linda