Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Monarchs & milkweed October 8, 2018

Monarch attracting milkweed grows next to a southwestern Minnesota soybean field. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.


A TIME EXISTED WHEN I CONSIDERED milkweed a weed as noted in the second syllable of the word. My dad assured me that the plant needed eradication from farm fields. So out it went.


Milkweed, along the prairie path at River Bend Nature Center, Faribault. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.


Decades later and more informed, I consider the milkweed valuable, a plant to be appreciated and not yanked from the earth. Through the years, we learn a thing or two or twenty.


It all begins with the milkweed, where adult female Monarchs lay their eggs on the undersides of leaves. These plants grow in Stockholm, Wisconsin, outside a bookstore.


Eventually caterpillars emerge from the eggs and grow, here in Stockholm, Wisconsin.


Then the caterpillars spin into a chrysalis for the final transformation. This chrysalis is on the side of my house. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.


Finally, a Monarch butterfly emerges from the chrysalis, this one photographed about a month ago in New Prague.


I’ve learned that the milkweed is necessary to the survival of the Monarch butterfly. Adult female Monarchs lay their eggs on one plant—milkweed. And the resulting caterpillars feed on milkweed leaves.

I remember a time when Monarchs were many. Through the years, as milkweed plants dwindled, so did the numbers of these beautiful orange and black butterflies.


Milkweed and other flowers rim the shoreline by the King Mill Dam in Faribault. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.


But now people are beginning to care, to understand the importance of growing milkweed, me among them.


I photographed this sign in Russ’ shop when I first met him seven years ago. He had free swamp milkweed seed in a jar on the store counter. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2011.


When I revisited Russ in September, I found him tending these milkweed plants outside his shop. His commitment to Monarchs remains as strong as ever.


In Stockholm, Wisconsin, Russ the bookseller continues as a strong advocate of milkweeds and Monarchs. I first met him during a 2011 visit and recently returned to find this shopkeeper still advocating for Monarchs. And growing milkweeds.



At Seed Savers Exchange just north of Decorah, Iowa, I spotted packets of milkweed seeds among the many seeds sold in the farm’s retail shop.


Packets of milkweed seed ready for the taking at the Valley Grove event. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo September 2018.


At the recent Valley Grove Country Social near Nerstrand Big Woods State Park, a representative of the Northfield Prairie Partners Chapter of Wild Ones handed out envelopes of milkweed seeds and information on Monarchs and milkweeds.


An unripened milkweed pod. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.


Photographed at River Bend Nature Center, Faribault. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.


Photographed 10 days ago at my brother’s rural Redwood County acreage.


Beyond all of that, I find milkweed pods beautiful in shape and, when fully-ripened, like art erupting. I am repeatedly drawn to photograph the wisps of fluff embedded with seeds. Seeds that will naturally fly on the wind, fall to the earth and grow new plants. Or, when harvested, shared by those who care about an orange and black butterfly. Like Russ in Stockholm.

TELL ME: Do you grow milkweed for Monarchs?

© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


45 Responses to “Monarchs & milkweed”

  1. Almost Iowa Says:

    One wonders how milkweed competes with ragweed. It might be worth a shot to find out. We have plenty of the later.

  2. jackie Says:

    My daughter and grandkids are crazy about Monarchs and milkweed. They make butterfly houses every year and have dozens of eggs to watch the process to the end. This year they even brought the butterfly house up to the cabin so they could make sure the babies had enough milkweed to eat. It was a fun process to watch. They were able to let a monarch go up north as it came out of its chrysalis on the day they were leaving. They have one milk weed plant, that we transplanted from my parents house.

  3. My mom took us for walks to look for milkweed and monarchs. Good memories! I’d like to grow some!

  4. When I was a park ranger in 2015 we completed a interpretive program on the Monarch. We watched the entire process with school kids and visitors to the park. One of the best pictures I have is of me releasing a new hatchling from my finger into the world.

  5. Love making my home a home for those to call home, have food and drink, etc. We had a good praying mantis community in our last yard. Here we have various types of butterflies, dragonflies, lady bugs, bees as well as the possums that do a great job of keeping the place clean. I seriously think the squirrels own the hood – ha! Then we have various song birds and Floridian birds that visit. Our mama dove was not a happy camper yesterday after the lawn mowing and she let us know. Everyone gets their share and space. Happy Day – Enjoy 🙂

  6. valeriebollinger Says:

    I, too, learned about the decline of milkweed and the importance of milkweed a few years ago. I have since planted milkweed in my garden and it comes up in different places in the yard…some I pull out. I love the monarch butterfly and the fascinating facts about it.

  7. Roslyn Says:

    Google ‘milkweed stuffed life jackets in WWII.’
    We covered our area of Le Sueur County collecting the ‘fluff’ into mesh bags. A great ‘got out of school’ afternoon activity on beautiful fall days.

  8. I have also learned recently about milkweed and Monarchs. Yes we need to keep the Milkweeds!

  9. Framers and road crews in our area mowed it down without abandon but now thru education Milkweed and Monarchs are on the rebound this year has been the best ever photographing these beautiful flying flowers !!

  10. pkpm519 Says:

    Back while we were still farming…the County Weed Inspector would stop ’round and give us “the what-for” for having any milkweed or other “noxious” weed growing in the ditch, or in the fields!
    So glad to know that people have realized the usefulness of many “Weeds!” I have several facebook friends who cultivate the milkweed…and proitect the eggs and cocoons of the Monarch!

  11. pkpm519 Says:

    Is there a way to share this with others, other than forwarding as an email? Can I post it on facebook?

  12. Beth Ann Says:

    We have several Monarch Way Stations around us including one at the Silvermont Mansion where they have some gardens that are tended by Master Gardeners. It is fun to see the monarchs feeding. We have thought about planting some butterfly friendly plants but haven’t done it yet as we have not developed a good deer proof system yet. 🙂

    • What a great idea those Monarch Way Stations.

      If I’m remembering correctly, animals stay away from the common milkweed due to its sticky residue.

      • Beth Ann Says:

        We also saw a monarch way station in Jacksonville in Aaron and Erin’s neighborhood but I don’t think I even took a picture of it. It was beautiful!

      • So is this just basically a garden on milkweed plants? Or what exactly is a Monarch Way Station?

      • Beth Ann Says:

        Yes. A garden filled with all kinds of plants that are great for all kinds of butterflies. They had then in the open spaces at the end of the street and the one in Silvermont locally is mainly the milkweed plants that they love. Nature is so amazing.

      • I just love this idea. We have a master gardener at our local library who plants flowers outside the library to attract butterflies. Lisa and other library employees have also started a community garden outside the library using many heirloom plants. The library also has a seed catalog.

  13. Missy's Crafty Mess Says:

    “Like art erupting”

    That made me smile. I remember playing with milkweed and spreading it everywhere as a child. I remember collecting it with the intention of stuffing a pillow with it but for some reason my stash disappeared. I can’t imagine why my mom wouldn’t want it in the house. I also remember watching for butterflies to hatch. We really were blessed with all of these outdoor experiences that city kids don’t get to experience.

  14. I had no idea. Thanks for the info and the lovely pictures.

  15. CAROL SELL Says:

    My niece and sister planted milkweed at the house they rented. Unfortunately, when they moved and the property went up for sale, it was all pulled out. They had also planted other wild flowers, so it looked “messy”. The property is in town, so I am sure there was pressure from the city to “clean it up” and also from the realty company to make it look more presentable to prospective buyers. Another “weed” that has been found to be beneficial to the ecosystem is the Canada Thistle. For one thing, gold finches use the fluff from the blossom/seed pods to line their nests. By trying to eradicate these “noxious” weeds, we are removing food sources for many species, including humans. These plants are food for the pollinators that are needed to grow our food crops of all types, with the added bonus of HONEY!

    • Carol, thank you for that additional info about Canada Thistle and about your niece and sister growing milkweed. I can only imagine the “clean it up” mentality.

      My mail carrier recently left a note in my mailbox that I needed to cut back my flowers and weeds or I would no longer get mail delivery. The flowers were hydrangea mopheads draping over the step railing. The “weeds” were apparently the waving stems of grass planted in pots and setting on the steps. I had a conversation with the carrier and educated him on my plants as he complained about his allergies and being stung by a bee. I advised him that I could not control either of those issues. Good thing he didn’t notice the milkweeds growing along the fenceline.

  16. Littlesundog Says:

    We have some milkweed here, and in areas where we generally mow, I flag the region off so that we don’t mow it down. FD goes along with these practices of mine to save many kinds of wildflowers on our place, even though I know it makes his mowing job more difficult. Now that we’ve let the orchard go wild, we’re seeing many butterflies and birds flourish in the area. Every effort helps!!

  17. Beautiful pictures. Also, one of my pet projects in Southern Indiana.

  18. Joe Owens Says:

    Hello. My name is Joe and I jumped feet first into the world of Monarch butterfly watching this year after being inspired by a neighbor who had the first registered Monarch Butterfly Waystation in our town. Branching off from that I decided to track the population of Monarchs I saw in and around our locale in the mountains of Virginia. I call it How Many Monarchs in My Back Yard Yesterday which I shortened to HMBY. I call it my HMBY posts and yesterday the HMBY number was 3! If you are interested in my tracking I invite you to look on my gardening and conservation blog, Chasing the Blooms.

    My neighbor I mentioned with the Monarch Way station told me she has successfully birthed 4 Monarch butterflies this season and she was trying to find a caterpillar to show me since I have never actually seen one. She searched for a while, but we never saw one. She then shared some milkweed seeds with me so I can grow more to up my chances of seeing my own in our back yard next year.

    • Joe, thank you for caring about Monarchs. It’s so uplifting to see a renewed interest in this once prolific butterfly. And what a wonderful neighbor to so the same and then share her milkweed seeds with you. Thank you also for stopping by to comment. Welcome.

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