A Place to Start

I’m a farm girl at heart. I know a little bit about seeds, about their purpose after being bedded beneath a sprinkling of good earth. I know the solid truth that if I buy a seed envelope with green peas pictured on it, and plant the dried and wrinkled green peas enclosed within, plants will soon emerge and eventually I will have a serving of cooked green peas on my dinner plate.

But walking through a garden center a few months ago, I gazed in disbelief at a packet of common milkweed seeds on that same rack. Who would actually pay a dollar twenty-five for milkweed seeds? 

I would, of course, soon learn why the lowly milkweed seed has emerged as a marketable item. The story begins not with a weed, per se, but with a host of men and women who, over the years have dug and hoed and cultivated the soil they owned, and saved the seeds from their crops for the years ahead; men and women who’ve dreamed and explored and questioned and learned a lot about the ground we walk on and the soil we use to grow our food. 

The milkweed and our beautiful monarch butterfly are intricately bound together in one of the most fascinating acts of nature and, indeed, a beautiful mystery. So, what has happened that there is a market for the seeds of this almost homely plant with poisonous leaves, a plant growing wild and really considered a pest to some farmers? And though I understand the genus of insects, how can a delicate gorgeous butterfly be called an insect? I think a “flying flower” describes it better.

So, why the milkweed seeds? Well, the monarch butterfly has at times almost made the endangered species list and one of the problems is the scarcity of milkweed plants. The common milkweed in the temperate zone of the United States has been all but eradicated through chemical fertilizer spraying and cultivation of arable lands. Since the larvae or caterpillar stage of monarch butterfly reproduction only feeds on milkweed plants, the monarch population has been affected; affected to the point that biologists suggests a few plantings of milkweeds throughout your front yard landscape would be beneficial and, as a side benefit, homeowners could catch glimpses of those orange “insects” fluttering around in their flower beds. Hence, the packets of milkweed seeds. 

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