We were talking and my wife suddenly stood with her mouth open, staring out into our distant hayfield. “That looks like orange butterfly weed!” she exclaimed, her eyes wide with surprise.
The showiest member of the milkweed family is called butterfly milkweed or butterfly weed because so many butterflies can’t resist sipping nectar from its brilliant orange blossoms. Its leaves are also a favorite food plant of the larvae of the monarch butterfly.
When we enrolled our hayfield in the Potomac Valley Audubon Society’s grassland bird habitat initiative, it consisted of the usual fescue, orchard grass and timothy. Over the years before we got here, the hayfield had somewhat deteriorated and was being overtaken by invasive non-natives including multiflora rose, Johnson grass, and Russian olive. Native common milkweed was already established here, and in the wetter part of the lower paddock we discovered a few swamp milkweed plants. But until today we hadn’t seen any butterfly milkweed.
Milkweeds are extremely successful at propagating themselves. Common milkweed spreads by underground runners and very quickly colonizes an area. When we first moved here, only a few clumps of common milkweed grew alongside the road. During the time we’ve lived here, common milkweed has spread into all our fields.
Butterfly weed doesn’t grow runners but has a long taproot. Although it thrives in many soil types, it prefers well drained areas and full sunlight and spreads chiefly by seed. Like all milkweed species, its dusty seed pods pop open in the fall to release hundreds of seeds with silky white parachutes that the wind carries far and wide. No doubt that is how the butterfly weed came to grow in our field. Today I found just two clumps, both in bloom.
Butterfly weed tops the list of plants recommended for native grassland and pollinator gardens. So far, our own efforts at converting our old hayfield into grassland bird habitat have been gradual. When the highway department graded part of the bank next to the road, we were desperate to check erosion. We ordered a special native grassland perennial seed mix and I reseeded the exposed slope. Now, two years later, colorful flowering native plants hold the soil and beautify the bank. But this is just window dressing as far as bird habitat is concerned. Inside the fence is another story.
As we struggle to manage the hillside hayfield to grow better natural food and cover for nesting birds, it sometimes feels like an uphill battle. Non-native Johnson grass, honeysuckle and multiflora rose are opportunists that muscle in. Even our common milkweed may monopolize the field if left unchecked. Our goal is to increase the diversity of native plants where we can.
But today, a brilliant blooming butterfly weed in our field is both a gift and a lesson. A pandemic now limits our travels and brings havoc and despair into our midst. But if we take time to look closely, nature can still delight and surprise us, even in our own backyards.
— Doug Pifer is an artist, naturalist, and writer. He has a Master’s Degree in Journalism from Penn State and has been an editor and art educator. His illustrations have appeared in various books and magazines and he has been a contributor to The Observer for several years. He lives with his wife and assorted animals on 5.7 acres in a historic farmhouse near Shepherdstown.
You can improve your own farm or backyard as a wildlife habitat. Visit the Potomac Valley Audubon Society (PVAS) website to learn about their Grassland Bird Initiative and other habitat improvement programs for local landowners.By Doug Pifer