Saturday, June 21, 2014

The problem with milkweed (and a sidebar on ticks)

Tick check. Photo: Vincent Mounier which I check my ankles for ticks, on Staten Island. I had been walking in the long grasses, roadside. And yes, I wore white pants on purpose - to spot them, fast.

The tick thing isn't funny. They are tiny. And they transmit diseases with large consequences: Lyme disease, babebiosis, ehrlichiosis, Rocky Mountain spotted fever, anaplasmosis and the rare but virulent Powassan encephalitis.

We are drenched in spray for mosquitoes that transmit the occasional bite of West Nile virus, but the ticks, that affect thousands of people, march on (although there is now a senate-convened Tick Task Force). The Frenchman and I tire of the threat, neither of us having grown up in tick-plagued countries.

This really was not going to be a tick post

But there is no part of the great Northeastern outdoors that is free of their threat. Except, perhaps, for this pocket of Staten Island, where not a single tick did we find.

Photographing common milkweed. Photo: Vincent Mounier

I did find beautiful common milkweed, whose flowers were just beginning to open. I picked about 25 flowerheads from the hundreds, for a lavender-colored cordial.

If you have a garden, or own land, consider planting milkweed. Asclepias syriaca is the only one - that we know of - that is deliciously edible for humans (shoots, buds, flowers and pods). But plant any of the over 100 species of Asclepias on which monarch butterfly larvae feed.

Botanical Interests sells Aslepias incarnata seed. The plants are perennial, so wait two years after sowing to see your flowers bloom. Glover Perennials on Long Island's North Fork propagates and sells (wholesale) milkweed plants, so ask your Tri-state nursery to stock their products. You can order milkweed plants online, too.

The only way to spread milkweed is to demand it or to broadcast the fluff from the seed pods, when you find it. Most of it falls victim to roadside and railside herbicide spraying, and most farmers consider it a pest, like the one on whose land I was permitted to collect the shoots in May.

This Staten Island common milkweed colony (they rise from an underground series of rhizomes) is threatened by the relentless crush of invasive and exotic - and edible! - mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris), which dominates the green area.

I doubt these acts of milkweed planting that I advocate will save the threatened monarch, whose forests far, far south have been depleted by logging (read Barbara Kingsolver's Flight Behavior - whose rather dismissive review I will never forget, on NPR, the reviewer questioning the monarch hook around which the novel is written, as rather - I am paraphrasing - esoteric and inconsequential).

But it can't hurt to try.

To recap:

1. Check for ticks
2. Plant milkweed
3. Make cordials
4. And come on my wild edibles walk tomorrow, in Prospect Park!



  1. Thanks for the advice on my rose. 'She' is much better - full of new leaves and starting to bud out again. Time would have care of her, but the hand-holding was good for me. Thanks.

  2. What sort of alcohol does your milkweed cordial involve?

    1. Unusually, none :-) Water, blossoms, sugar. Previously, I have made a syrup, boiled, but wanted to see if I could do it elderflower-style, this time round.

  3. Sorry, totally off-topic here, but my hair was once as red as yours and I miss it! It looks lovely on you!

  4. I live in north Texas and have two milkweeds in my town garden, swamp milkweed and tuberosa. I was delighted to see hundreds of milkweed on my greenbelt walk last week. I gained an immense appreciation for milkweed as a host to many insects through the local native plant society. I am thrilled to know about B. Kingsolver's book. I love her. She always strikes a chord in me.

  5. The monarch's flight and endangerment are inconsequential??!! I'm choking. Good grief. Certainly hope that reviewer was taken to task by -- well, by anyone he or she spoke with after the show.

    Can't wait to see if milkweed is among the many green things in the park down the street. Mary

    1. This was a couple of years ago, before monarchs were part of the news cycle. But someone did not do their homework.

  6. I'm always afraid of ticks when I'm in the woods or grassy area. It's good practice to check for them like you mentioned.

  7. Ahead of the curve I am having planted milkweed 2 weeks. Guess you mean more than one plant tho...

  8. Yes yes yes on the milkweed planting! I grow two species - Asclepias incarnata and Asclepias tuberosa, the latter in two varieties - in the Michigan garden and let them seed pretty much wherever they want. I can hardly think of a better summer perennial. They are tidy, pest and disease free, flower for weeks and weeks even in the Midwestern heat, and draw lots of butterflies. And every time I find a monarch caterpillar I am just delighted! They rarely seem to come more than two or three to a sizeable plant, so unlike other caterpillars they do not even leave particularly conspicuous damage.

  9. I am very grateful that you mentioned ticks. The diseases they transmit should be taken extremely seriously. Guinea fowl are a natural foe to ticks as they eat them. I believe that individuals and municipalities should invest in the Guinea fowl to try to eradicate ticks. In addition, it would be cute to see Guinea fowl in our parks.


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