COLUMNS

Just Thinking: Roaming milkweed resilient but silent

MARGO BARTLETT
Margo Bartlett

A couple of years ago, my husband and I planted milkweed in our yard, hoping monarch butterflies would consider it a sort of Hometown Buffet.

The milkweed didn't exactly thrive, neither did it die, at least not in the heart-clutching, melodramatic way plants must die in order for me to notice they're goners.

I'm so accustomed to bringing indoor plants back from the brink by last-minute waterings that I'm inclined to look at every dried-up, wilted, drooping piece of flora as if it should be behind a sign I saw once in Pittsburgh's Phipps Conservatory: "I'm not dead, I'm just dormant."

At any rate, the milkweed survived. My husband planted one group around the base of a pear tree given to us by our younger daughter and her husband. The gift was in commemoration of another pear tree that had lived in our yard far longer than we have lived in our house.

Our daughter and her husband had been married in front of the other pear tree, which a few weeks later blew over in a storm. If we were given to superstition, we might have found that ominous, especially when the gift pear tree also blew down in another storm several weeks after it was planted. The milkweed is planted around the base of what amounts to a collection of hearty pear shoots.

We aren't superstitious, though. We're more inclined to credit the winds that tear across the farm fields to the west, flattening whatever they encounter, which over the years has included a burr oak, a large silver maple and the arch under which our older daughter and her husband were married.

Luckily, the wedding was not going on at the time.

The other milkweed, planted under a black walnut tree, has done less well, but I'm pretty sure it's alive.

The plants are green and upright, and every once in a while, a shoot or two ventures a few steps south, which inspired me to name one of the travelers Jonathan Livingston Milkweed.

Which brings me to the reason I'm talking about the milkweed. The patch around the pear tree -- really, more of a pear bush now -- is doing OK, but the milkweed that truly is thriving, the milkweed that is showing the other milkweed how to be a tall, strong, robust member of the Asclepiadaceae family, are the plants growing about 15 feet west of the pear bush, in what used to be the south end of our asparagus patch.

These milkweed are taller than I am. They're a towering forest of milkweed, a jungle of milkweed, and they're crawling, literally, with both monarch caterpillars and other, less easily identified caterpillars.

The question is, where did this burgeoning crowd of milkweed come from? We didn't plant it.

And although I knew that milkweed will send out shoots from its original bed, these plants did not leave a trail. They're here under the pear bush, and they're over there in the asparagus patch. Any observer would swear they jumped.

I've tried to resist putting words into the milkweed's mouth. I'm almost sure the milkweed growing fitfully under the pear tree didn't kick at the dirt and grumble, "This isn't a good spot. Over there would be so much better." I'm practically positive the milkweed's mother didn't say, "Go west, my daughter, with my blessing."

Still, there's no doubt the milkweed went westward, because there it is, in a spot that is clearly a milkweed's paradise.

"Are you a miracle?" I asked it the other day. A passing caterpillar thought I was talking to it and agreed it probably was ("Buddy, you have no idea," I told it in a prophetic sort of way) but the milkweed had nothing to say. Milkweed keeps its own counsel, I've noticed. It's a plant of few words.

But even without words, our milkweed has schooled us in the art of milkweed husbandry. Let your milkweed grow where it wants to grow, it has taught us. We will seek our own best place, and when we find it, the sky's the limit.

I'm not entirely sure it wasn't a miracle.

Write to columnist Margo Bartlett at margo.bartlett@gmail.com.