A blog focused on nature, science, environmental topics, and happenings at the Pocono Environmental Education Center (PEEC).

A Naif in the Forest by Darrell Berger

Wing Tips to Hiking Boots: Musings of a New, Full-Time Poconos Resident 

The open milkweed pod with its cottony seeds was an annual fall decoration in the schoolrooms of my early education. Milkweed was among the first plants I could identify. “See,” my father said, “it’s called milkweed because if you break it open it has this fluid that is white, like milk. But don’t taste it! It’s poison.”  I have followed his advice in this case, at least. 

One of the world’s great pollinators, milkweed is host to over four hundred kinds of insects, including, as I have written previously, the monarch butterfly, which eats only milkweed. Milkweed flowers are very complex, allowing many ways to pollinate. A rapid rate of growth enables it to survive the many caterpillars that love it. 

It is not exactly a weed and not exactly invasive. It spreads easily and has no other uses in the garden other than pollination, though milkweed flowers are attractive as well as complex. Through the ages it has been used medicinally and as a substitute for down, feathers and insulation. 

Recently we wanted to attract monarchs and bees, so we planted some. It grew quickly and abundantly, as promised. We pulled some when it began to dominate its neighbors. 

In the summer we saw that milkweed was indeed the most popular plant in the garden. Everybody wanted a seat at its table. As fall progressed we understood that the monarchs we saw were to be part of the great migration of that species, taking them all the way to Mexico. Other butterflies and moths were abundant compared to previous years. 

Then came the caterpillars. We saw many varieties, including the toxic green Io moth caterpillars, one of which stung me as thanks for trying to keep it from being squished in our doorway. The curious tussock moth caterpillar and some with even stranger appendages bustled about. They first reduced the milkweed to stalks, and then began feasting on other plants. Our kale and Brussels’ sprouts apparently are as tasty as milkweed. 

The moral of the story is, as my father might have said, “You wanna watch the butterflies, you gotta feed the caterpillars.”

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