Independence Day is this weekend. Fireworks have been going off in my my neighborhood for days now as people who apparently equate noise with patriotism are enjoying their right to put that feeling into action. Earlier this week, I was photographing a patch of common milkweed in front of our field headquarters at the Platte River Prairies and thought the flowers looked much like fireworks – but quieter. Maybe prettier too.
The attention paid to milkweed has increased dramatically over the last year or two as concern over the plight of monarch butterflies has grown. I’m excited to see that energy because it helps increase interest in broader issues of pollinator and biodiversity conservation. What’s good for monarchs (plant diversity, natural land cover – especially prairie, land management that favors milkweed, intelligent use of pesticides, etc.) is also good for bees and many other species, as well as broader ecosystem functioning.
I’ve been thinking about milkweed management in our Platte River Prairies for a number of years now, especially related to cattle grazing. Cattle like to eat the flowers off of common and showy milkweed (A. syriaca and A. speciosa) even in our moderately stocked patch-burn grazed prairies. The “deflowering” of milkweed and a few others species has pushed us to modify our management somewhat to make sure that every portion of our prairies is completely excluded from cattle at least once every 4-5 years so those species can bloom and reproduce. So far, that seems to have helped maintain healthy populations of those plant species, but we’re continuing to monitor and adapt our management as we learn more.
Milkweed plants are important to monarchs, but many other species as well. Their flowers are among the most popular nectar sources for many pollinators, and a number of herbivorous insects have evolved mechanisms to deal with the toxic sap and rely on the plants for food. Hopefully, the attention brought to milkweed by monarchs will help those other species as well.
Have a great 4th of July!