Bugs Bunny: Well, here we are! Pismo Beach and all the clams we can eat!
Daffy Duck: What a way for a duck to travel. Underground. Hey, wait a minute! Since when is Pismo Beach inside a cave?
Bugs Bunny: I wonder… You know, I just bet we shoulda turned left at Albuquerque…
(‘Ali Baba Bugs Bunny’ Warner Bros., 1957)
In January 2019, the annual monarch butterfly count in California delivered a grim statistic: an 86% population decline from the previous year. If that wasn’t bad enough, according to Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation, “Monarchs have experienced a decline of 99.4% in coastal California, from an estimated 4.5 million in the 1980s to 28,429 as of January 2019.” A dramatic setback for conservation groups and backyard gardeners who have been sounding the alarm that the monarch is a bellwether for climate change.
Western monarch counts along the California coast are conducted over Thanksgiving and New Year’s, when the preceding year’s last generation of butterflies huddle together in vibrating cascades of orange and black along the misty coastline of glaucous eucalyptus trees. The Pismo Beach colony of invertebrate royalty, three and a half hours north of Los Angeles, has become our January lepidopteran pilgrimage. Winters are a bit chilly up there by L.A. standards, but it’s the perfect climate for triggering monarch dormancy. We huddle right along with them—pathetic in our “winter” jackets—taking moody shadowed impact shots that will hit Instagram with a pulse of activism. Save the goddamn monarchs!
A couple years ago on our walk into the butterfly grove, our dog started coughing dramatically and this savior of a woman asked if she could show me a trick that stops small dogs from coughing. “Support her head like this,” she mimed, resisting the urge to grab my dog. I hate when people go to my dog without asking. I hate when I ask them not to and they say, “It’s okay, I’m a dog person, all dogs love me.” Well, I don’t know about dogs, but I kind of hate you for not listening to me. How does that grab your snout? Real animal people know boundaries because they know each animal has a personality to be respected. All animals have preferences. The Pismo woman—who loved dogs, monarchs, and boundaries—she was a real dog person. She continued, “Then gently tilt her nose down towards her chin. It opens up her airway and works every time.” If you’re a pet parent who can’t stand to helplessly watch an animal suffer, you know how much this meant. It really does work every time. Oh, Pismo, you were some sort of magic that morning.
If you’ve heard about the plight of the monarchs, you’ve probably heard about milkweed. If you’re a backyard butterfly warrior, you’re probably shitting your pants right now over its mere mention. Milkweed is like caterpillar breast milk, and so-named for its white latex sap. Mother monarch lays her eggs on milkweed so her larval babies can immediately ingest the sap upon hatching. Sap that’s toxic to other animals and, once ingested by caterpillars, makes them a bitter lunch for predators.
Estimates vary, but there are about 75-100 species of Asclepias, the milkweeds, in the United States; but monarchs have their preferences and so do plant nurseries. Here in California, it’s common to find Asclepias curassavica, or tropical milkweed, in the big-box stores. It’s native to Central and South America, it’s simple and cheap to grow, and monarchs love it. Curassavica reliably produces clusters of cheerful orange and yellow flowers that attract butterflies and various other nectar-loving meanies like aphids. Although Asclepias are perennials, they die back to the ground in freeze zones. In the mild climates that span the southwest and Gulf Coast, however, curassavica, high in monarch warrior demand, retains its foliage year-round and doesn’t go very long without blooming. That’s one of its problems, and I’ll come back to it.
Here’s another one. Some garden centers still treat their plants with neonicotinoids. The globally controversial ‘neonics’ have been indicated in bee colony collapse and their various applications have been restricted or banned in the European Union and some U.S. states. Yet, despite commitments to phase out neonic-treated plants, as of this writing, I still find the plastic soil tags in nursery pots reading something to the effect of, this plant is protected from pests by neonicotinoids. The USDA, prior to the Trump administration, linked neonic usage to monarch population decline and most major plant retailers agreed to halt its usage. But without a nationwide ban (The Trump administration’s rollback of previous restrictions obviously isn’t helping), neonics—one of the most common and large-scale agricultural insecticides—will persist in our fields and blow in our winds. Neonics can be applied to soil, seed, or foliage. When we buy a treated plant, we don’t know how it has been applied or how long its toxicity will persist. If we have hungry caterpillars waiting for us to get home, we’re feeding them poison.
Next on the list of problems: When the monarchs’ need for milkweed went mainstream, its seed-handouts were like Tootsie Rolls on Halloween. Milkweed is losing its habitat! Take some! Plant it quick! The milkweed! The milkweed! Woe is the milkweed! Plant your goddamn seeds! But to this day, in warm south and west climates, those seeds are almost always curassavica. Native milkweeds can be harder to grow and collecting enough of their seed to supply the heavy demand has been all but impossible. The result being, people across a huge swath of the country from Florida westward have been growing nonnative curassavica. Not exclusively, but predominantly. A pretty little pot on cute little balconies everywhere, doing its part for the cause, and first-graders across the land lifting leaves every morning looking for larvae. Enter, my neighbor.
I’ve never met her. I only know that she lives somewhere in the neighborhood and her kids have been raising monarch caterpillars this summer. I know this because she took to our online neighborhood group a few weeks ago and posted a cry for help: The milkweed! The milkweed! Give me your goddamn milkweed! Something like that, anyway. Her child’s class project—a couple dozen caterpillars—was on the brink of collapse because the “cats”, as she constantly referred to them, ravaged their singular milkweed plant and were starving. I was surprised by how many neighbors responded with promises of milkweed cuttings. I was one of them. I gave her my address and left a bag of milkweed foliage (tropical milkweed, I might add) at my mailbox. I never got a ‘thank you’ but I’m not bitter. Nope, not as bitter as milkweed sap.
Without large swaths of land dotted with natural borne milkweed, or at least large enough backyard patches, caterpillars quickly run out of food. The darling little pot of milkweed probably can’t sustain one, much less an entire brood, of caterpillars. They’re able to travel, but it’s a journey fraught with peril and predation and a sustaining population can’t possibly be expected to safely inch their way to the random neighbor who might happen to have milkweed. So, little Timmy’s project might just end in heartbreak. But Timmy gets a new lesson to learn: the circle of life always ends in death. Way to go, Timmy, you’re ahead of the curve.
P.S. Timmy could have offered his late-season caterpillars some raw pumpkin to tide them over until his mom pestered his neighbors for more milkweed (and then failed to thank them).
If the tropical milkweed patch happens to be large enough to sustain the lifecycle, we canonize ourselves upon first sight of metamorphic emergence. The monarchs are here! The monarchs are here! Look at my goddamn monarchs! I know I do. A little pat on the back for contributing to the greater good, even if we do kill a few caterpillars along the way. We’re teaching our children. We’re giving a damn. We’re stepping away from inane electronics long enough to find fascination in something that matters. It’s just not enough. We can’t rest on our milkweed laurels. There are course corrections to be made.
Xerces Society now says that tropical milkweed “interrupts the monarchs’ natural migratory cycle, leading to disease build-up and winter breeding which are both associated with poorer outcomes for monarchs, further exacerbating other stressors on the population. If you already have tropical milkweed in your garden,” they advise, “it is very important to cut it back to the ground in the fall (October/November) and repeatedly throughout the winter to mimic native milkweed phenology and break the disease cycle. Ideally, tropical milkweed should be removed entirely and replaced with native milkweed and/or nectar species.” Course correction.
Not all experts agree with that last statement about removing curassavica entirely. That’s where we’re still waiting on research to catch up with hypothesis. Science Magazine reports, “Milkweed hosts a protozoan parasite called Ophryocystis elektroscirrha (OE). As caterpillars, monarchs ingest the parasite along with their normal milkweed meals, and when they hatch from their chrysalises they are covered in spores…Monarchs who stayed in the southern United States for the winter were five to nine times more likely to be infected with OE than migrating butterflies were…” It appears OE infections weaken monarchs and decrease their lifespan, but science isn’t going so far as to assert that Tropical Milkweed + OE = Monarch Demise.
To complicate the matter, University of Michigan researchers found that under today’s atmospheric CO2 conditions, the relationship between healthy tropical milkweed, monarchs, and OE appears somewhat symbiotic, or at least manageable. However, they found that under increasing CO2 conditions, like we see more of with global warming, the inherent medicinal qualities provided the butterfly by the milkweed—its compounds that help stave off fatal OE infections—decrease. The equation now being explored is, does Global Warming + Tropical Milkweed + OE = Monarch Demise? One thing pretty much all sources agree on, if you’re going to grow curassavica, prune it back regularly in the winter so that OE can’t proliferate and monarchs are forced to migrate.
To summarize: When not managed correctly, tropical milkweed is likely contributing to false starts and unpredictable endings for the monarchs. Rather than migrate, the adults stick around too late in the season because they’re still sniffing out the occasional blooming tropical milkweed. They expend their eggs, their larvae may or may not have enough milkweed to complete their lifecycle, the plants may or may not host disease, pests, spores, and parasites, and the caterpillars may die prematurely—or survive but contribute to a synthetic pattern of non-migration.
Whatever the cause, the effect is that monarchs aren’t showing up in Pismo Beach to overwinter, they aren’t migrating in large numbers to the native milkweed stands and farm fields of the north and east in the spring (what little host land there is left), and the lifecycle and migration cycles are being severely impacted.
It needs to be said, however, that tropical milkweed is not the sole reason for this mass disruption. Nowhere near it. The hot blazing truth is that we as a society are terrible stewards of our land. If managed properly, a patch of healthy curassavica will indeed nourish monarchs. Yet, even its complete mismanagement is a modest contributing factor to monarch decline compared to climate change, habitat loss, and abuse of pesticides and herbicides. Failed land stewardship.
But land stewardship and climate change feel too big to tackle, so we talk about the lowly milkweed. There’s just something about that damn plant that really gets us fired up. It’s relatable, resilient, persistent and, now, its persecuted. The bickering is happening already. The lambasting, the I know something you don’t know about milkweed and that makes you an idiot. But I can relate to that too. Sometimes I expect everybody to know what I know and, if they don’t know it yet, my patience is tested. I have more patience to watch a plant grow and a chrysalis emerge than to wait for humans to catch up to speed. Every time a poor ignorant soul is slow to make an essential change I think, the world is on fire—it’s out of patience! We don’t have goddamn time for this! We are fully capable of speed, but our egos are out of control. We don’t want to admit that, as a highly evolved and intelligent species, we’ve been tremendously ignorant and flat out wrong. Plus, Change = Fear. Fear of being pushed out of our comfort zones. Fear of losing the things we want. The things! The things! Butterflies are cute, but what about my things?!
I’ve never been good at pruning back foliage. It’s long been a dream to have a lush yard, where plants express their natural desire to form bowers of darkness and hedgerows of privacy. Plants protect people from people. This is my ivy-grown castle and you can’t find my entrance. Ficus so thick a bad guy would have a better time fording a barbed wire fence. I thought that’s what plants wanted from me, and for me. To prune was to stifle. To open unnecessary wounds. Draining essential saps and inflicting traumas that leave woody scars I’d have to pass by for the rest of our lives. I was wrong. I consulted arborists, professional gardeners and hobbyists—they were all serious pruners. They love pruning. I was the one who was slow to come around. Course correction.
I’m no botanist or scientist, I’m just a backyard hobbyist, trying to decipher science, who does what he thinks is right until he hears otherwise. I started pruning when that news arrived that tropical milkweed needs to be cut back each winter. When the resident caterpillars finished feasting and went in search of places to pupate, I cut back my potted curassavica. It was the very first milkweed I planted after our first Pismo pilgrimage. It was pathetic and sticky with aphid honeydew, attracting ants and, who knows, probably OE spores. I cut it to the soil line so that not a single aphid remained. It only took a few weeks for it to grow back healthy fresh foliage. It loved being pruned.
Then I hired a tree trimmer to cut down a tangled and insect-ravaged eucalyptus tree that I thought for sure would fall on our house in a windstorm. “Leave its 12-foot tall dead stump in place so I can attach bird feeders and a string of party lights,” I supervised. Within weeks the stump sent out the healthiest looking shoots and leaves I’d ever seen, enveloping the bird feeders I’d callously screwed into its bark. Today it looks like an overeager Chia pet, ready for its second haircut. Then came the tipuana tree, the avocado tree, the rose bushes, and the long arms of our Peruvian cereus cactus. This pruning thing really works! I pruned away the dead and the diseased, the sun-starved lanky arms, and the encroachments that had turned my shrubs into whales swimming in a goldfish bowl. It’s still a jungle out there—but it’s a managed chaos. It’s healthy.
That’s the difference between land use and land stewardship. Stewardship is nature in healthy balance with human ego. It’s a symbiosis, but we’ve inched ahead as parasites. We’ve been taking too much sap. Stewardship asks us to decide what things we can and can’t live without. How much we need vs. how much we want. It asks us to look inward and decide what we will and won’t change about ourselves. Stewardship cannot happen without sacrifice. Significant sacrifice that will ask each of us to examine our comforts and conveniences, our greed and our egos. We will die without it.
Milkweed, then, becomes symbolic of that tension. It represents our fear and compassion running up against our ego and our greed. Like the Earth as a whole, milkweed is kind enough to satisfy all parties. It’s a thing we can see, and touch, and have for our own. It’s a thing that gives to others, and gives to us. It connects us to our neighbors. It’s easy. It doesn’t ask for much. It just needs a little help now and then. It needs us to get out of the way for it to heal itself. To grow new shoots. A small course correction. It’s a good start, if we’re good stewards, and butterflies will be the bellwether.
We are being forced to make milkweed decisions the Earth never intended us to make. Humans have greedily grabbed for everything in their reach and now the environment is coughing for kindness. Its stewardship is the largest course correction humanity will ever have to make. We need a healthy pruning of the ego. We need our boundaries reshaped. We are encroaching on our neighbors. We are sick and spreading spores. We are a whale in a fishbowl. We are milkweed for monarchs.