PARIS — Here's your problem, Kentucky gardeners: You're not growing enough milkweed.
True, milkweed generally is not a showy plant, and a name that ends with weed the isn't the kind of moniker that sets gardeners' hearts aflutter. Milkweed is not generally stocked by the big-box stores, because gardeners generally want big, showy blooms.
But without enough milkweed, we lose out on one of the showiest creatures known: the monarch butterfly, which uses milkweed to feed its larvae.
Joanna Kirby, president of the Kentucky Garden Club, is urging gardeners to establish "monarch way stations" across the state where the larvae may feed. Think of it as an incubator for the gorgeous orange-and-black butterflies.
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For Kentucky, the plant species encouraged would be the common milkweed, swamp milkweed, butterfly milkweed, and poke milkweed. But Kentucky is bordered by a more southern region where antelope horn milkweed, green antelope horn milkweed and zizotes milkweed are encouraged.
Kirby and Clancy Robinson, a volunteer at Paris' Nannine Clay Wallis Arboretum, strolled the arboretum grounds recently, pointing out butterfly-friendly plants while white moths fluttered nearby.
Chief among them is the milkweed, which may be purchased at many locally owned nurseries. Kirby pointed to six milkweed plants. If you don't know that they perform an essential service by having just-hatched monarch larvae nosh on their leaves, you'd be a bit underwhelmed.
They're tall green stalks, and when left to mature, the seed heads will pop open and fluff will emerge. If you live near a field with lots of milkweed, you might see them float across in a tumbleweed effect.
That development and extensive mowing along roadsides and on farms has depleted the milkweed supply. Kirby said.
"I can't change farming practices, but I can urge gardeners to add plants," she said. "It (milkweed) doesn't have a really good reputation. But it's so important to monarchs. ... It's an important plant."
Kentucky has 50 certified monarch way stations, Kirby said. She also has brought some "tropical milkweed" for planting. An annual plant, it will grow to a height of four to five feet.
Kirby and others, including Monarchwatch.org, want gardeners to understand how to build and maintain monarch habitats, including milkweed. That is not just an activity for gardeners; it can be undertaken by schools, community groups and local governments.
Monarchs are beautiful as well as fascinating — taking as many as four generations to fly from Mexico to as far north as Michigan and Canada and then back to Mexico. Sometimes during the long journey they simply allow themselves to be carried along surging air currents.
Kirby once saw hundreds of monarchs floating past on an air current, and described it as an awe-inspiring experience. In Barbara Kingsolver's novel Flight Behavior, monarch butterflies clustered en masse in Appalachia, forced to huddle by deforestation in their traditional breeding grounds and the forces of world climate change.
Gardeners who have butterfly gardens featuring such draws as butterfly bush and purple coneflower can easily add milkweed to make the whole area more of a butterfly cradle-to-maturity haven, Kirby said.
"We incorporate the entire arboretum into it," she added.
For more information
On the Web: Monarchwatch.org; Wildones.org/learn/wild-for-monarchs; Gardenclubky.org
To see what a monarch way station looks like: Visit the Nannine Clay Wallis Arboretum, 616 Pleasant Street, Paris, a four-acre garden. It is also the headquarters of the Garden Club of Kentucky.
To buy: Area nurseries Springhouse Gardens and Shooting Star Nursery carry milkweed.