TRAVERSE CITY — Common milkweed has a rather unfortunate name since it's not actually a nuisance plant, but instead a native wildflower thought to be integral to the recuperation of devastated monarch butterfly populations.
"It's a shame it has weed in its name," said Reb Ratliff, parkland steward for the Grand Traverse Conservation District.
The district on Friday morning hosted a volunteer planting event for common milkweed plugs at the Lone Pine Trailhead, where former Boardman River bottomlands are now exposed since the removal of the Boardman Dam along the trout stream. The plan is to shore up the river banks with native trees and plants, some of which also benefit pollinators such as wild bees, honeybees and monarch butterflies.
Planting common milkweed in the now-exposed bottomlands is expected to set up the riverside area as a monarch butterfly breeding ground. Monarchs are among the area's most important pollinators, along with wild bees and honeybees.
"Our biggest threat to our ecosystem is habitat loss," Ratliff said. He said he believes wildflowers seem most at risk and without them, pollinator insect populations also will suffer.
"The role of pollinators are drastically underappreciated, undervalued and misunderstood," he said.
Erwin "Duke" Elsner, horticulture educator with Michigan State University Extension in Traverse City, said common milkweed is the most significant host plant for monarch butterflies. That means as far as maintaining monarch populations, common milkweed is what supports them best, he said.
Monarch caterpillars, once-hatched from their eggs, engorge themselves on milkweed leaves before transforming into chrysalis that often cling to the stems of milkweed plants. After metamorphosis, monarch butterflies then emerge, dry their wings and fly away to eat nectar and begin the species' life cycle again.
Many are concerned about reportedly crashing populations of monarch butterflies, Elsner said, and scientists are determined to figure out why fewer return each year from the species' tropical wintering grounds. Further, scientists are scrambling to help the species recover, he said.
One thing every gardener can do to help is plant high-quality food sources for bees and butterflies, particularly common milkweed, Elsner said.
"It's a big one for a lot of species," Elsner said. He added that one bloomed, milkweed serves as a tremendous nectar source for all pollinators, including bees and more than 60 species of butterflies.
The trouble is, many home and professional gardeners treat the plant like a nuisance weed and pluck it from the ground. Instead, gardeners who wish to lure in bees and butterflies would do better to plant common milkweed and other native nectar generators such as black-eyed Susans, daisies and asters.
"Common milkweed can create a tremendous number of monarch butterflies," Elsner said.
The best way to grow milkweed in a garden is by collecting seeds from pods on wild plants found locally.
"You've got to let them dry out really well. It's best to take pods when they are just cracking open," Elsner said.
Common milkweed spreads not only from seeds, but also from underground rhizomes called creeping rootstocks. Some home gardeners might choose to grow common milkweed in containers so it doesn't spread to unwanted areas, Elsner suggested.
If flower pots or containers aren't used for common milkweed, gardeners should expect the plant to pop up in other areas such as nearby flower beds or even an adjacent lawn. And because all the plants are connected underground, any herbicide used on the milkweeds that pop up in the lawn will also sicken or kill the plants in designated flower beds, Elsner said.
Cyndie Roach, curator of the Grand Traverse Butterfly House & Bug Zoo in Williamsburg, said butterfly milkweed plants that can be bought at plant nurseries or big box stores often are treated with neonicotinoid insecticides, so she warns against using those because they will harm butterflies.
"You're attracting them and then killing them," she said.
Roach also advocates for keeping neonicotinoid pesticides entirely out of home gardens and lawns — those chemicals frequently appear in grub killers — because bees and butterflies often are inadvertently negatively affected.
Roach agreed with Elsner that collecting seeds pods from wild-growing common milkweed is best, but the bug zoo also gives away milkweed seeds for those who wish to create monarch butterfly habitat at home, she said.
Ratliff said he also can help area residents locate common milkweed seeds should anyone wish to add the native wildflower to their own gardens and properties to benefit monarch butterflies and other pollinator insects.
Learn more about common milkweed and monarch butterflies
Erwin "Duke" Elsner, Michigan State University Extension, 231-922-4822, email@example.com
Reb Ratliff, Grand Traverse Conservation District, 231-941-0960, ext. 27, firstname.lastname@example.org