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Milkweed by Terry Thomas

An annual war is forming up on the canals and ditchbanks, fields, farms and backyards all across the country. On the one side is a pretty pink wildflower called common milkweed. Landowners are on the other side, armed with an array of chemicals loaded into tanks pulled by tractors, carried by ATVs or even by backpacks, and marking their battlelines with blue dye. Anything short of milkweed annihilation seems to be unacceptable.

It is easy to see why landowners might resent this native plant. It is a perennial that not only reproduces through copious seed production but by rhizomes as well. Rhizomes are lateral roots that shoot from the mother plant at an astonishing rate and form numerous new sprouts. They can quickly create a milkweed colony where other plants cannot grow.

To see where mmilkweedilkweed gets its name, cause a little injury to a milkweed stalk. A sticky white sap will immediately begin to ooze out and run down the stem, much like a milky tear. This milky sap is full of toxins known as cardiac glycosides, making this plant poisonous to most animals, humans included.

Milkweed has several redeeming qualities though. First, the pink five-petaled flowers form up in a pretty globe on top of handsome green foliage.

Second, milkweed is attractive to many beneficial insects, providing pollen, nectar and escape cover.

Third, milkweed is the host, the only host, to monarch butterfly caterpillars which can absorb the toxins making themselves poisonous in the process. The relationship between milkweed and monarchs is similar to that between sagebrush and sage-grouse. The plant thrives without the animal, but the animal’s biology is hardwired to the plant.

It’s that third one that should give pause to the war on milkweed. Monarch numbers are dropping fast, and researchers tie it directly to the decline of common milkweed. To save a milkweed is, quite possibly, to save a monarch and thus a species.

Despite its beautiful flowers and foliage, despite the fact that the late summer seedpods are works of art, even despite the fact that monarchs must have them, for me, our native milkweed is not a plant to welcome in a small backyard.

Once, in an attempt to do my part for monarch conservation, I allowed, even encouraged, a single milkweed plant in my garden. By the second year, I had milkweed runners 12 feet from the mother plant. Feeling two-faced, yet fearing a hostile takeover, I too went to war and battle this same plant today. Its aggressive nature may be best suited for fields and woodlands. There are other species of milkweed, such as butterfly milkweed, that will still satisfy a monarch caterpillar yet won’t overwhelm the garden.

If milkweed existed for only one reason, as life support for monarch butterflies, for me that would be enough reason to preserve and even perpetuate it.  It would be hard to imagine a world where monarchs no longer fly simply because humans were intolerant of the plant that sustains them.

Terry Thomas is a wildlife biologist with 27 years of experience.  Opinions expressed are his own.



New 3-D Archery Course at Castle Rocks State Park

Check out the new 3-D archery course at Castle Rocks State Park on June 27th! A dedication ceremony will open a new fishing pond, followed by an exhibition of archery skills by members of the Idaho State Bowhunters.  Dedication of the half-mile archery course begins at 1:30 pm. The new archery course holds 14 Rinehart 3-D targets of life-sized foam game animals, such as moose, elk and mountain lions. The course is made possible by collaboration between Idaho Fish and Game and the Idaho Dept. of Parks & Recreation, with additional funding provided by Idaho State Bowhunters and the Idaho Fish & Wildlife Foundation. For more information, call the park at (208) 824-5910.


IFWF Facilitates Fishing Access to Popular Site

Little Salmon River

The Idaho Fish & Wildlife Foundation played a vital role in securing new fishing access on the   Little Salmon River near Riggins. The Foundation partnered with the Department of Fish and Game and private landowners for public access to a 5.2 acre site along Highway 95 just downstream of the bridge commonly known as “the swinging bridge.” Fish and Game has developed a parking area and walking paths to the area that is popular for fishing Chinook salmon and Steelhead. Anglers are encouraged to visit Fish and Game’s website for the Little Salmon River access map and rules.