Honeyvine, Milkweed and Monarchs


I pull bindweed with a vengeance. I don’t attempt to get the roots because I know it will be in vain. The roots can go 20 feet down or more. With mosquitoes massacring me, I crouch in crazy, awkward positions under an elderberry to pull one vine. But the other day I noticed a monarch landing on one of these vines. The next day I saw another land on the same vine. I inspected it more closely and realized it had clusters of tiny white flowers, like so many other insect attracting weeds in my garden. The other similar vine that also likes my garden is hedge bindweed but it has large, white, morning glory like flowers.

Silver-spotted Skipper on honeyvine flowers

After doing some research, I found out the plant with the tiny white flowers is known as honeyvine or sand vine. It’s in the milkweed family which would explain why the monarch was landing on it. It is also, like common milkweed, considered a noxious weed  due to its aggressive attributes and toxicity if ingested by farm animals.

As one thing leads to another, which happens so often in gardening, my discovery of honeyvine led me to wondering about monarchs. I knew their numbers were down (by around 80%) and I wanted to know if this honeyvine might help them. As if my one little, opportunistic vine could actually help the monarch plight. Well, it turns out, as with so much these days, the monarch plight is indeed grim and very complicated. The monarch has evolved to lead a very finicky life. It not only relies on plants in the milkweed family to lay its eggs but its life cycle or cycles seem to include one trip to one tiny spot in Mexico before returning north in the spring to lay eggs on milkweed again. After reading about ten articles on the subject, I confess, still being completely confused. If interested in the life cycle of monarchs, monarch-butterfly.com explains it much better than I can.

Anyhow, monarchs also rely on milkweed for nectar which it needs throughout the season and is especially important during its migration period. It can drink nectar from other flowers besides milkweed but milkweed flowers seems to be the preference. So, as the prairies have turned into crop lands and pesticides have been effective at killing milkweed, the pesky plant is not so pesky, or much less abundant at least, for now. And there is also something going on in Mexico. I’m not really sure of the details but it involves destruction of trees in the one tiny spot where the monarchs congregate during winter. Simply put, it’s very bad for monarchs. Ellen Sharp, an environmental non-profit director living at the entry of Mexico’s Monarch Butterfly Reserve wrote a good article describing how bad it is.

The real reason I wanted to know all this was because I was wondering how long during a season do monarchs rely on milkweed. Is it just spring, or is it all summer and fall? Honeyvine milkweed as well as common milkweed can look a bit on the “wild” side. Common milkweed also begins to look unsightly as it awkwardly pops up in strange areas like the middle of the front walk. If you want to grow common milkweed, one plant is all it takes for a colony to create itself. When it dies, it turns an ugly yellow color and often flops over. So, do I need to keep all this unsightly stuff around all season and everywhere?

In my last post, I mentioned my excitement at witnessing a monarch caterpillar on a milkweed plant. That was September so I’m guessing it probably is best to leave the milkweed alone as much as I can stand it and as ugly as it is. Common milkweed doesn’t look too bad when it’s mixed with other plants and grasses. I place whatever milkweed I have to cut in an inconspicuous spot in my garden and don’t throw it in the trash. I mow over anything coming up in a path or lawn before it can grow. Honeyvine doesn’t grow all that fast and I’ll let a few vines grow. I’ll throw out any seed pods so it doesn’t get out of control. Also, there are many other varieties of less aggressive milkweed available, the most popular being butterfly weed and swamp milkweed.

Maybe my garden isn’t the most tidy place. I hope no one minds if a few awkward looking plants stick out, look ugly or flop across borders. More and more, gardening for me is not so much about beauty or maybe I just need to look closer to see it. After all, what could be more beautiful than a monarch?


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