Wauwatosa is being asked to take a special part in a national effort to bolster sagging numbers of monarch butterflies.
The leading monarch butterfly research and advocacy center in the nation wants us to spread the word that it needs Wisconsin seeds.
The main reason, according to the University of Kansas-based organization: The introduction of genetically modified "Roundup Ready" crops, which allow heavy applications of herbicides that have destroyed the only food that monarch caterpillars can eat: milkweed plants.
Lately, new fears have arisen that changing weather patterns are exacerbating the population problem, with last year the worst on record and this year looking bleak.
In response, Monarch Watch has launched a Bring Back the Monarchs campaign to grow and provide milkweed plants to state and local agencies and private organizations and citizens for transplanting into herbicide-safe habitats.
Monarch Watch founder and director Chip Taylor last week contacted Barb Agnew of the Friends of the Monarch Trail in Wauwatosa to say that because of growing interest here and throughout the state, it expects lots of orders for milkweed plant "plugs" from Wisconsin.
The problem is, Monarch Watch is lacking any seed stock from the area, and most naturalists and state natural resource and transportation departments prefer to plant only local or regional genetic types.
So Agnew is asking Wauwatosans and others who have embraced the Monarch Trail on the County Grounds to help collect wild milkweed seed – and there's a bit of a rush.
"The milkweed pods are popping early," Agnew said, "earlier than I've ever seen. So we need to get out there before it's all gone with the wind."
Common milkweed is easy to identify, and the seeds are carried in large pods that can be plucked or clipped readily.
Agnew said that collecting seeds to support the monarchs can be a great school class or community group project, but a little care is needed. Milkweed sap is mildly toxic and irritating to skin and especially eyes. Wearing gloves is strongly advised, and hands should be kept from the face and eye area when collecting. Wash hands after handling.
Collected seed pods or cleaned seed should be bagged and marked with the date, county, state and species.
Seed may be dropped off at Barb and Dicks Wildflower, 12326 Watertown Plank Rd. Leave it at the counter during business hours or after hours in the bin Agnew will provide on the west side of the building.
You may also mail your seed to:
University of Kansas
1200 Sunnyside Ave.
Lawrence, KS 66045-7534
Monarch Watch will reimburse the shipping cost of your seed.
There are a dozen native milkweeds in Wisconsin, but most are rare and not likely to be found except by experts.
Of the common varieties, the most prevalent and easy to find is common milkweed (Asclepius syriaca). Besides that, the other species that might be encountered in the wild are swamp milkweed (Asclepius incarnata) and butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa).
Gardeners who already grow milkweeds are asked not to donate seed unless the genetic origin is known to be local, roughly within Wisconsin or northern Illinois.
What, when and where to collect:
- Only collect the milkweed species from your region.
- When the pods are first beginning to split (ripe but yet to open pods should split upon touch and the seeds should be brown or “browning up”). Do not collect pods in which the seeds are white, cream-colored or pale.
- Be sure to obtain permission before collecting on private property or federal, state or county properties.
- Be safe. Please do not collect along busy highways.
How much should I collect?
Collect as much as you can. Many pounds of milkweed seeds are needed for seed mixes used in roadside or landscape restoration. Two to four onion bags filled with pods will yield about 1 pound of seeds.