Foraging for Milkweed

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When I'm not hunched over a computer writing or over a fire doing coppersmithing, I'm in the garden or hiking/biking with the kids and husband. Or chasing chickens. Or bees. Or runaway cucumbers...

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Sara, here

Cooking in copper doesn’t always start and end with a pot! Sometimes, in order to truly have a garden that gives, you need to start somewhere else.

For me, that means a robust ecosystem of bees, butterflies, ladybugs, and caterpillars. And what’s the best way to get Monarch caterpillars? Why, offer their favorite food! Milkweed!

Have you ever tried to grow Milkweed from seed? I have. It’s HARD.

So this year, on one of my runs around the side roads and back country haunts, I saw some of it already growing and easy to grab. The kids and I went on a foraging expedition to bring back these native Wisconsin plants for the garden, which will hopefully thrive enough to come back on their own next year.

Many people have spent several years discussing the plight of the Monarch butterfly. Around here in Port Washington, WI, “Saving the Butterlies” is a thing, just as Barbara Kingsolver wrote about in one of our book club reads, Flight Behavior. Well, how do you save the butterflies, exactly?

First of all, you have to save those caterpillars from the county or city mowers! Due to the height of prairie grasses and wildflowers, many towns, villages, cities, and county road supervisors mow down a solid 10 feet or more along the edge of all the roads in order to keep visibility around bends and driveways at a maximum. And that makes sense because safety is key. However, those roadsides and ditches are exactly where milkweed likes to grow in numbers. Several times a year, they get razed and there’s no time to re-grow and provide a traditional egg-laying location and food source for Monarchs.

I should also mention, for the sake of the upcoming story, that I really really don’t like caterpillars. I don’t know why. I think it goes back to a particularly nasty looking one held in a bug cage by Sister Mary Eve in my first grade classroom. I still get the shivers of revulsion when I remember watching that thing go round and round, with the humps and spikes showing up every few minutes so I absolutely was distracted and didn’t learn a thing. Ever since then caterpillars make me kind of want to throw up a little in my mouth.

But I can’t show that repulsion to my kids, because what kind of mother would I be?! And besides being so beautiful, Monarch caterpillars need our help! So we dutifully got a bug box and started watching for said caterpillars to hatch.

One day, when I was on a run on a country road near our house, I saw that town mower, with his big tractor attachment, going down the road and chopping down the wildflowers and grass. At this moment, I saw a Monarch caterpillar on one of the milkweed plants nearby. Well, I had to save him from the tractor! I ran toward the mower, waving my arms yelling “stop! Wait! You’re going to hurt the caterpillar!”

To his credit, he stopped, got out, and came to find out why I was running at him like a crazy person. And he totally agreed the caterpillar should be saved before he mowed. He was going to shake it into my hand, but I couldn’t!!! So I took off my sweaty sock, had him put the caterpillar in there, and ran home as fast as I could, all the while hoping the thing didn’t climb out!

He didn’t. And we hatched him (or her) into a beautiful butterfly. Totally worth it. But that’s another reason to plant milkweed. It’ll save me from chasing tractors.

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