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The Nature of PEI

by Gary Schneider

(photo: Macphail Woods)There is a buzz around pollinators these days. We’re hearing about them as never before, whether we care about honeybees, Monarch butterflies, or the hundreds of other pollinators that are important contributors to environmental health. Concerns over neonicotinoids, an insecticide used on many PEI crops, are all over the news as scientists document the damage they are causing to honeybees and other forms of wildlife.

There are also pollinator problems associated with habitat loss and climate change.  The Monarch butterfly has become the poster insect for these threats. As with the panda and the seal, the rise of concern over monarchs, no matter how well deserved, shouldn’t take the focus away from the many other species that deserve our attention. But Monarchs are getting hammered from all sides. The destruction of habitat on their wintering grounds in Mexico, the changing weather patterns, and pervasive use of pesticides have resulted in their numbers dropping precipitously.

In the midst of this bad news is a renewed interested in one of our rarest native plants—the swamp milkweed.  At Macphail Woods, we started growing these perennials about five years ago in order to attract Monarch butterflies.  It turned out to be one of those “If you build it, they will come” moments. The following summer, a group of summer students found the first Monarch caterpillars on the plants. It seemed too good to be true. But since then, the Monarchs and their caterpillars have shown up every year in increasing numbers.  And we keep planting more.

As part of our extensive plantings at Eliot River school and the neighbouring Terry Fox Sports Complex in Cornwall, we have added lots of swamp milkweed with the help of the school’s students and faculty. Last year, we created a large garden bed specifically to attract pollinators.  The swamp milkweeds are front and centre, but they are flanked by other native wildflowers, including Joe Pye weed, cutleaf coneflower, blue flag iris and blue-eyed grass. We’re hopeful that once these mature, that they will provide a very welcoming space for pollinators that is visually stunning.

And it is the “stunning” part that is often forgotten when we’re thinking about native plants. Swamp milkweed stands up against any other plant for beauty, hardiness, and ease of growing. It has clusters of beautiful pink flowers that come out mid-July and will be around well into September. The plants reach three feet in height and work well in large blocks. We’ll often plant 50-60 in an area, as it seems like it’s “the more the merrier” for Monarchs. Dense plantings help protect the caterpillars and become a very showy, low-maintenance area.

While its name might lead one to believe that it needs to have wet feet, swamp milkweed thrives in all but the driest conditions. Lots of organic matter and mulch, and at least initially a weed-free setting is all the help they need.  Once the plants start to set seed, you’ll have more little ones than you know what to do with, as the seeds readily germinate around the adult plants or can be collected for planting.

Planting this rare native species will bring great pleasure to anyone interested in enhancing an area for pollinators of all kinds, including Monarch butterflies.  But the plants will also delight gardeners and should be a much more common species around Island homes.

It’s a small action that won’t solve all the other threats to Monarchs, but falling in love with this native plant and taking pleasure in seeing Monarchs winging around gardens is a start.

—Gary Schneider is the founder and Supervisor of the Macphail Woods Ecological Forest Project and has a great interest in the natural history of Prince Edward Island. 

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