Saving Seedlings, Saving the World

Beyond the campsite’s irrigated lawn, the view of native scrub-covered hills.

Recently I went camping near my new home in Boise. I sat down with a cup of coffee and a notebook in my campsite one morning, enjoying the trilling of a meadowlark and a view of natural scrubland as I pondered (this is one of my favorite activities).

As my eyes roamed leisurely across the lawn on which I sat, what did I spy just next to my lawnchair but a milkweed seedling? After several minutes of scanning, I finally found another seedling about ten feet away. Trouble is, these seedlings were growing in a lawn. That probably meant they would be mowed down.

Can you spot the milkweed seedling growing in the lawn next to my chair?
Here is a closer view; I believe this is showy milkweed, Asclepias speciosa.

My morning became much less pleasant as I contemplated the fate of the monarch butterflies. Will their 2013 migration be the last? Will their iconic annual journey end within my lifetime?

It is only an abundance of milkweed stands throughout their migratory route that enables monarchs to make the arduous journey south. They are so short-lived that it takes up to five generations of butterflies to make the trip. It was discovered in 1976 that survivors spend each winter in one of several absurdly tiny patches of montane forest in Mexico and Southern California.

In hopes of attracting these graceful creatures to my garden, and for the rich sweet scent of its blooms, I had just planted some milkweed in my new courtyard garden. Now that I saw these seedlings that would not ever be allowed to mature, I wished I had planted more.  I don’t want to own the land on which the last migrating monarch dies without being able to find any larval food for her precious eggs.

As I was listing my options in my notebook (sneak out after dark and dig up the seedlings, petition the state park to cordon off the area and let them bloom, visit a garden center for more milkweed as soon as I got home), the park ranger conveniently buzzed past on her four-wheeler. I leapt up and flagged her down and explained that I’d found these milkweed seedlings. Did she know about their connection to monarch butterflies? Oh yes she did. Would that area be mowed? Yes it would. Could I dig up those two seedlings and take them home? Sure, no problem.

Downing the last of my coffee, I rummaged for and found my collapsible shovel (what, you don’t carry one when you go camping?), and soon the two foundlings were packed in the empty mug and settled in the cup holder, ready to begin their own migration. At least now they will have a chance to feed some caterpillars.

Is it too corny to call this a cup of hope?

(By the way, there’s still time! Buy some milkweed plants or sow regionally appropriate seed and you too can be a part of this great natural phenomenon.)


  1. You are so inspirational, Evelyn. I just pulled out two milkweed plants from my front bed. I had no idea. Thank you for the education. I love many “weeds,” but have been conditioned to consider them inappropriate to a garden. I will be enjoying any new milkweeds that pop up in my garden from here on out. I will be able to then glimpse the magic of beautiful butterflies gracing my borrowed piece of earth for a moment.

  2. Before you transfer them to your garden you may want to make very sure it isn’t dog strangling vine. They look extremely similar. Even to the monarchs. They will lay their eggs on them and then the caterpillars die.

    • That’s an interesting tidbit and was new to me, Lisa. I had to research dog strangling vine (a relative of milkweed — too bad it doesn’t also support the monarch). Thanks for the tip.

  3. That was smart, flagging down the ranger… Don’t want to be arrested for saving plants… Did he give you a permission slip to carry the babies out of the park?

    I’ve rescued babies from turf, as well… But I think the option of putting up a “do not mow” Sign is the reasonable action…

    • Yes, Stone, it would be great if leaving sections unmowed were an option; I have had that conversation with campground owners and rangers for years, and apparently visitors complain if a campground looks too wild. (!)

      This is Idaho, so no permission slip needed; the bureaucracy has barely a toehold here. Feels like home to me. 🙂

  4. Evelyn,

    Truly inspirational, especially after my day of jury duty! haha Ironically, I find milkweed does great when it pops up as a weed in places like along highway shoulders, but I’ll be darned it I get seed from a botanic garden, plant it, and it always sprouts and then fizzles. Maybe it needs very little care and poor soils, like alot of ‘weeds’.

    • I haven’t had the best luck with it either, Paul, except encouraging it where it’s already growing. By which I mean keeping other plants from overtaking, but otherwise not giving it any help (other than vocal encouragement).

  5. Wonderful!

    My “common milkweed” volunteer has spread to a 12-stalk patch this year — unfortunately at the front of my bed, not the ideal place for a 5′-tall plant.

    A local garden center was giving away a swamp milkweed plant with every purchase. Nice bonus!

  6. Delightful article! Last year I watched an Imax movie about the monarchs, and this spring I ordered seeds for my butterfly garden. Among them, swamp milkweed for my swampy back yard. How wonderful of you to notice the little seedlings and rescue them!

  7. Wonderful story. I particularly can relate to how your carefree day turned not-so-carefree because you happen to understand the importance of these two little seedlings. Ignorance really is bliss, and we have too much of it in our world. I just planted milkweed in my garden and I plan to make room for even more.

    • Brande, yes, things do look different based on what we know about them. That is one reason I’m hopeful that we can shift from our lawn-dominated culture… as people come to see that lawns represent an unnatural absence of life, they do not look so pretty to us.

  8. I love this post! I’m currently de-lawning so I can create a pollinator garden. I think I’ll add a big patch of milkweed, too. Thanks.

  9. So glad you are all milkweed proponents. I just spotted a tiny curbside garden less than a foot wide, and it was filled with grasses and milkweed. Every little garden can be a sanctuary for somebody.

  10. I was just trying to figure out yesterday to pull or keep the milkweeds. I’ll keep them! Always trying to encourage more butterflies to visit.

    I keep a small shovel on hand wherever I go, but I don’t want to get into what I use it for on a public forum, hehe. (it has to do with dogs, hint, hint).

  11. Wondering about the taproot – were they small enough to transfer well?

    Milkweed has claimed about 4 foot diameter in the backyard (from 1 plant last year we got from a wild meadowland) and we are going to do up the neighbour’s front yard with it too…. help your brown thumb neighbours – be a good scout and plant this wonderful plant. Nice way to work extra garden space in an urban landscape and the neighbours love it!

  12. Looking again at your pictures: Oh, yeh, the leaves might be too narrow – milkweed is more rounded and wide…. hum…. well your heart is in the right place – seedlings are hard to tell – I can’t weed my garden right now until I see more telltale signs of what they are. The milkweed is coming up all over though.

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