Mary,  Mary quite  contrary, how does your garden grow?

With silver bells and cockleshells and cowslips all in a row.

Old nursery rhyme

Have you ever wondered what a garden of weeds would look like?  Two rows could have the tall and graceful green milkweed where caterpillars turn into butterflies and the pods open up with fluffy white strands to blow on and scatter to the wind.  Next row could be a rather scraggly-looking chicory plant, the kind that grow along most roadsides.  Its spindly stem holds two or three deep blue flowers that seem to bloom in no particular pattern up and down the stem.  Then the Queen Anne’s Lace that looks kind of like a seeded asparagus plant and spreads its bushy stems wide over the row when in full bloom with the white lacy flower petals.  They make fine bouquets and can be sprayed with hair spray and dried to last through the winter.  Mullein stands stiff as a statue and has small, seedy flowers but they would add a strength of character to your garden.

     No weed garden would be complete without a row of unruly, massive burdock just waiting for the master gardener to walk by so the burrs can reach out and attach to his jeans.  It is a sticky, prickly burr that holds tight until forcefully pulled off and has sometimes been suggested as the forerunner of Velcro.  A row or two of dandelions planted just for the children to pick a flower for their mom.  Dandelions are edible, also.  And when ready to go to seed, the flowers burst into fluff that kids love to blow and watch it fly away.   

   That garden would flourish and bloom and grow like none you had ever planted before.  You would never have to weed it or re-seed it or cultivate it.  There would be butterflies and bugs and worms to delight every child.

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. 

Photo by Richard Lee on Unsplash