New Milkweed Production Boom in Quebec Boosts Hope for Flagging Monarchs

by Valerie Hunnius

Photo by Gail Burstyn, Lylis Designs

Photo by Gail Burstyn, Lylis Designs

Remember when August brought orange and black royalty to our gardens?  Remember when monarch butterflies were so plentiful you couldn’t count them?  Remember when you first learned of their multi-generational migration from here to Mexico and back?  The sense of awe we all felt!

I think we all know by now that milkweed is an absolute requirement for sustaining monarch butterfly populations.  Monarchs lay their eggs only on milkweed and the caterpillars eat it.  It is their only food source.

It is no secret that loss of milkweed in rural areas, as a result of illegal deforestation, overuse of herbicides and extreme weather, all along their flight path, is the cause of near extinction rates of decline of monarch butterflies over the past few years. The World Wildlife Fund did a study which showed that in December 2013, there was a 44% drop from the previous year in the number of migrating butterflies returning to Mexico. 

In the spring of 2014, the David Suzuki Foundation created a campaign to encourage the planting of milkweed in as many locations as possible.  Suggested areas are roadsides, hydro and rail corridors, transit medians, parks, school gardens – up to and including the creation of monarch butterfly way stations.  There are currently 7,500 of these across North America, and Canada has 300.  We should encourage our local nurseries to carry this plant.  The David Suzuki Foundation  website is a source for finding milkweed producers and nurseries, and they are selling the plants directly in local campaigns.

But will this be enough, even if we all begin planting milkweed, to turn around what seems to be an overwhelming loss of population?  Yes, we can make a difference!

Ah, but there is light at the end of the tunnel!   A Quebec  company, Protec-Style, has discovered that the fibres of milkweed – that beautiful silk we see wafting through the air in September – has a unique ability to repel water.  As such, it is an ideal sponge for oil spills.  The fibres are light and hollow and have the capacity to absorb four times more oil than polypropylene, the artificial product now used to clean up spills.  Francois Simard, the creator of the company, has a contract with Parks Canada to supply national parks with oil-spill kits (absorbent tubes filled with milkweed fibre).  He has set up a cooperative of 20 farmers in Quebec to grow 325 hectares of milkweed, and he has another 35 growers on a waiting list. Who knew that hazards associated with fossil fuel production would find a remedy related to butterflies?  Mother Nature does work in mysterious ways!  

In addition, Protec-Style is currently testing milkweed fibres for cold weather insulation with winter clothing manufacturer, Chlorophyll.  We may have many more reasons to be thankful for milkweed, and the Government of Canada hopefully will finally remove it from the official list of noxious weeds in Canada.  That might at least give us hope that the pact signed last year between the leaders of the U.S., Canada and Mexico to make greater efforts to protect the monarch is more than just a little hot air.

[Note:  Much of the information in this story was first broadcast as a CBC News Item on December 1, 2014.]