The milkweed is in bloom. There’s been lots of discussion in conservation and environmental circles about the importance of milkweed for Monarch butterflies. As the population of Monarchs has declined, people are asked to plant milkweed to support Monarchs and other pollinating insects. But, milkweed is more than just Monarch food. It’s also non-grass vegetation that contributes to the overall diversity in prairie plant communities.
We’ve got some healthy patches of milkweed in un-mowed parts of the farmyard and in paddocks grazed early in the season. It turns out that an efficient pasture depends on more than just smooth brome and blue grass for cattle grazing. Milkweed and other forbs provide environmental services that are often over-looked, like pulling up nutrients from the deep subsoil or improving the filtration rate in the shallow layers. Too bad that we usually call them “weeds” because these non-grass plants are important for the overall soil health on our grass farm.
I’ve read that during World War II in the fall, school children in our area collected milkweed down to contribute to the war effort. Supposedly the fluff was used in life jackets and floatation devices for pilots shot down at sea. That all sounds like wartime propaganda to me, but it seems to demonstrate a need that milkweed could fill. And, it’s a dramatic contrast to the actual soil health functions that are much more subtle and important. Plants have to be “useful” or we call them “weeds” and our notions of utility change.
Here’s a link to some more pictures of milkweed in bloom: https://prairieecologist.com/2019/07/05/photo-of-the-week-july-5-2019/. It’s from a blog by a naturalist in Nebraska who is doing prairie restoration in a working landscape. Surf through his posts because he’s got a really good balance of basic science, idealistic conservation, economic reality, and esthetic photographs. Here’s one of his posts on diversity: https://prairieecologist.com/2018/02/07/diversity-redundancy-and-resilience/
Now if I could adjust my attitude to accept thistles as forbs doing environmental services to improve soil health…..