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Milkweed allowed in Madison Heights to help sustain pollinators

By: Andy Kozlowski | Madison - Park News | Published June 14, 2019


MADISON HEIGHTS — The milkweed plant was once banned in the city of Madison Heights, but is now allowed following an ordinance amendment that recognizes its role in sustaining pollinator insect populations — most notably that of the monarch butterfly.

The changes were unanimously approved by the City Council at its May 28 meeting, as part of Ordinance 2138, which deals with noxious weeds. Councilwoman Roslyn Grafstein had asked for a comprehensive overhaul of the ordinance that would take into account the importance of milkweed to local ecosystems.

She noted that there are currently five registered monarch way stations in Madison Heights that feature milkweed, which helps sustain monarch butterflies. And she would like to see more.

“I want the gardens in our city to be aesthetically pleasing and biodiverse, so that people come to Madison Heights to wander around and look at our gardens,” Grafstein said. “Green space with pollinator-friendly plants such as milkweed and native wildflowers not only make the area look nice, but they also help protect water resources and manage stormwater runoff while attracting beneficial birds, bees and butterflies.”

The proposed changes to the ordinance were reviewed and commented on by members of the Madison Heights Environmental Citizens Committee, on which Grafstein serves as council liaison. Additional input was provided by members of the Clinton River Watershed Council and the Oakland County Cooperative Invasive Species Management Area.

Changes to the ordinance include updating the definition of “noxious weeds” and deleting references to specific plants, instead referencing Michigan’s Invasive Species Watch List. In addition, new provisions encourage native plantings and natural planned landscaping with guidelines to control the spread of weeds.

Grafstein said that milkweed may have once been considered poisonous, and thus classified as a noxious weed, due to its milky sap containing toxins that could be harmful to pets and people if consumed in vast quantities.

“However, if this leaks out from the stem or leaves, people just need to wear gloves and wash their hands after touching it,” Grafstein said. “Most animals will avoid this, so the risk of poisoning is extremely low.”

Milkweed is essential to the monarch butterfly, known for its orange and black wings and ability to fly thousands of miles across the country. During the spring and summer, milkweed-laden areas serve as breeding grounds for monarch butterflies. And the nectar from the flowers sustains them in the fall as they migrate to Mexico for the winter.

A monarch way station features at least 100 square feet of space with exposure to at least six hours of sunlight per day. There should be at least 10 milkweed plants, and several varieties of annual, biannual or perennial nectar plants, clustered close enough that they provide shelter from predators and the elements. A monarch way station also involves active management and should avoid the use of insecticides.

Alice McKeage, a resident of Madison Heights and a gardening enthusiast, shared some tips on other native plantings that can supplement milkweed in providing a pollinator-friendly environment.

“Purple coneflowers, black-eyed Susan, columbine, bee balm, asters, Joe Pye weed, liatris, yarrow and goldenrod are native perennial nectar plants easily found and planted in the garden. After the first year, they require almost no effort, since they are accustomed to the soil and climate, resist pests and help filter water. These nectar plants attract both butterflies and bees,” McKeage said. “There are many plants, bushes and trees that are also hosts for butterflies and moths. The herbs dill, fennel, parsley and the wild carrot plant are host plants for the black swallowtail caterpillar — and of course, herbs are also used in cooking.

“Many birds depend on caterpillars to feed their young,” she added. “As one example, it has been estimated that a mother chickadee with four babies needs over 9,000 caterpillars while she is feeding her babies. Without native plants, we have no caterpillars; without caterpillars, we have no chickadees or other birds.”

McKeage became interested in milkweed a decade ago when she read about the demise of the monarch butterfly population. Previously, she had only raised gardens for their aesthetic value; now she was interested in their ability to support pollinators.

“A woman I knew was trying to kill the milkweed in her yard. I encouraged her to leave it be, and when she clearly would not, I dug it out and moved it to my house,” McKeage said. “At that time, the Madison Heights recreation brochure and newsletter listed milkweed and thistle as invasive species and encouraged residents to eliminate them. So I planted my milkweed plant in an area of my yard where I thought the city would be unlikely to notice!

“I did not realize how invasive it really was: Now I have about 400 square feet of milkweed,” she said. “Five years ago, I started noticing monarch caterpillars. I watched and took pictures as they went through their life cycle and flew away. Then I found more caterpillars and soon they started to disappear. So I spent hours online learning about monarch caterpillars and their predators. I started bringing the caterpillars indoors to raise them and later release the butterflies.”

She joined the Southeast Michigan Butterfly Association and started learning about host plants and nectar plants, which led to her planting fennel and parsley for swallowtails. Then she learned more about native gardens and bees, all of which led her to seek certification for a monarch way station and wildlife habitat in 2018.

“I think of myself as an accidental champion for the butterflies and bees,” McKeage said.

She said she no longer uses chemicals on her lawn, and while she may not like dandelions, bees need them early in the spring, and she can mow them later.

“I am choosing native plants for my gardens instead of what ‘looks pretty,’ because I have learned that the natives feed or host the pollinators. I am reducing the size of my lawn by expanding my gardens. My gardens are not yet the lush nectar gardens of my vision, but with each new plant, I am getting there,” McKeage said. “I delight in seeing insects that I have not seen for many years. And as I get older, I’m learning to garden more efficiently so I can spend less time managing the garden, and more time enjoying the pollinators.”