Going Guerilla for Milkweed

There is something delicious about being rebellious! It’s also amazing to see your actions make change for the better happen in a visible way. When what you do saves monarch butterflies and improves biodiversity, it feels even better.

This past fall I signed Suzuki’s Monarch Manifesto and really meant it. I collected about 20 ripe, split-open pods of ‘common milkweed’ from a field near a friend’s cottage in Haliburton. These are native, wild-grown, and are diverse genetically from the few remaining milkweed plants in Altona Forest.

I collected ripe common milkweed pods on a dry, cool day in fall… and stored them in a paper bag. On a sunny, slightly breezy day at Altona Forest’s hydro corridor entrance, I let the fine filaments of the seeds take flight into the sunny open areas that milkweed thrives in. It was amazing – and strangely exciting and therapeutic- to see all those seeds take flight. (I recommend it for the sheer fun value!)


Swamp milkweed in Altona Forest – prefers full sun and wet soils (poor soils are fine)

The hope is that these seeds will become tall milkweed plants. They will provide nectar, nurseries and protection for monarch butterflies. The monarchs help to pollinate the plants and the symbiotic circle will continue with new seeds flying in fall to help continue seeding the hydro corridor’s sunny wasted spaces. Milkweeds (asclepias) are perennials – so they will return year after year to support monarchs and other pollinators.

I’m getting ahead of myself. For a ‘weed’, milkweed can be challenging to get started from seed. Just ask people who’ve tried to grow it. I’ve been asked how to make it grow – but I’m as new to it as you are. I sourced great tips:

  • Milkweed seeds are fully ripe only when the pods split open naturally – when they open when you lightly press on the pod’s seam. Harvesting earlier means the seeds are wasted – too green to be viable;
  • Ensure that the seeds are fresh, dry and well ‘ripened’ – they are prone to mold and bacteria if damp. Molded and rotted seeds won’t grow. Carefully dried and stored milkweed seeds can last up to 15 years;
  • Find an area with the right sun conditions – generally as much sun as possible
  • Let the seeds fly and ‘overwinter’ (go through the needed ‘vernalization’ of a moist cold period required for germination);
  • Distribute them where the milkweed would be mostly undisturbed by foot traffic and animals.

Milkweed may flower in it’s first season, but people growing milkweed report that it can sometimes take up to three years for a bloom. Experienced milkweed gardeners recommend the ‘milk jug method’ because it allows for outdoor growing, natural stratification (the breaking down of the seed’s hard outer layer), and easy transplanting. If you need to stratify and vernalize the seeds artificially, then separate them from their ‘wings’ and keep them in a fridge for 30 days with slight dampness and sterile vermiculite.

I hope to see a few milkweed plants this summer. A beginning. Hope for a wildflower-filled future in the hydro lands at the north gate of Altona Forest. If you grow the native milkweeds, I invite you to join me in being a ‘native guerilla’.

The sunny open spaces in underused land is a great opportunity to ‘go guerrilla’ with surplus native wildflower seeds you may have. What else would like this area? Any of the monarch’s other native food sources like rudbeckia (black-eyed susans), all varieties of cone-flowers, native lupine, prairie smoke, blazingstar, native asters and blanket flower. Natural fields and meadows are areas with high biodiversity of birds, pollinators and native flowers  –  a habitat missing from Altona Forest thanks to development.

Altona Forest is off limits – due to protective regulations and poor growing conditions for  field wildflowers.


Common milkweed at the north gate

Guerrilla gardening is an art. Aim for good seed variety – and Ontario natives. There are many similar plants that are not native. Choose only native plants – to support local biodiversity in the roadside ditches, empty lots, and yes – places like the hydro corridor. All great projects begin at home – so plant some native wildflowers in your own garden first. They will provide food for butterflies and seeds for you to scatter.

There are 3 main things to keep in mind when going guerrilla for wildflowers:

Source: Don’t deplete one natural area to add to another (or to a home garden) – that’s simply destructive. If you’re collecting milkweed seeds like I was, be kind and respectful of genetic variety and take one pod from each plant that has multiple ripe and viable pods. If you are wild-collecting – it’s illegal to collect from any conservation area.

Native Species: Be sure that what you are collecting and dispersing is actually a native wildflower. How do you know? You can work backwards and choose some species from a trusted book or website on natives… and harvest them from your friends’ gardens. Or you can purchase some native plants from a trusted source, and collect their seeds when they mature.

Location: As in real-estate, location is everything. Common milkweed doesn’t grow in wet conditions (however swamp milkweed does!). Milkweeds need at least 7 hours of direct sunlight in a typical day. Field wildflowers generally need as much sun as they can get… and they don’t like to be trampled so beside a foot path is not the best spot.

When you are wandering Altona Forest later this summer, stand at the hydro corridor gate and the area just in front of you will hopefully have some milkweed blooming. Please tell me if you see monarchs!

Tip & Project: Take a variety of native wildflower seeds from your garden and make ‘seed bombs’ or ‘seed balls’ with them. It’s as much fun to make seed-bombs as it is to deploy them! This is a great project for a social club or for kids –  Instructions…


Swamp milkweed in Altona Forest

Resources ~ Begin your reading here:

This time I’ve hotlinked resources through the article… so simply click through to begin your own reading

Some of the tips on growing milkweed come from the live webinars presented through the US Fish and Wildlife Service’s monarch butterflies conservation initiative. Though some of the best information and Q&A comes from the live chat window during the presentations!


Going Guerilla for Wildflowers ~ © 2016 Natasha G



This entry was posted in DIY Projects, Forest-Friendly Practices, Gardening for Biodiversity and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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