Another roadside attraction – especially for the butterflies.

Milkweed on Queensborough Road

Milkweed pods just bursting with silky seeds – a common sight along the local roadsides in the fall. (I took this photo on Queensborough Road west of our village.) For the monarch butterflies, it must be a happy sight indeed!

In my last post, I asked you good people to help me identify some lovely tall grasses that sway in the breeze alongside Cooper Road, a little west and south of us here in Queensborough. And you did! So first of all, thank you for that!

Today, before snow shows up and covers everything for good (which looks set to happen sooner rather than later), I’d like to mention another natural feature of our rural roadsides.

It is, as those who can identify what’s in the photo at the top of this post will know, the milkweed plant. While through the summer the pods on the milkweed are fat and green and closed up, in the fall they turn brownish and dry, split open, and reveal their silky seeds. Those seeds are caught on the wind and scattered far and wide, to create new milkweed plants. Have you ever rubbed the seeds of a milkweed pod between your fingers? If you, like me, were lucky enough to grow up in a tiny rural place like Queensborough, where the roadsides are full of milkweed plants, of course you have. They are so silky soft.

monarch butterfly

The monarch butterfly, a familiar and beautiful sight. (Photo from Monarch Teacher Network of Canada)

But what milkweed plants really make me think about is the monarch butterfly. Because, as I hope you know – and you can read more about it here, if you don’t – the milkweed plant is the only source of food for monarch caterpillars and the only place where monarch butterflies will lay their eggs; and given that the dwindling number of monarchs has been cause for a large amount of worry in recent years, it behooves us all to do what we can to protect and even plant milkweeds to feed and support them.

I’m sure – or at least I hope – that you all know what a monarch butterfly looks like, and what a happy addition to any day the sighting of its bright orange-and-black wings makes. The monarch is also an extraordinary natural phenomenon, because of its unique migratory pattern and life cycle – from very specific places in Canada to very specific places in Mexico and then back again, over a relatively short period of time but more than one generation of butterfly. It is a wonder of nature.

When I think of monarch butterflies, I think of Madoc Township Public School, where I was educated from Grades 1 through 6. Why? Because in the days back in the 1960s and early 1970s when I lived in Queensborough and attended that school, we learned about monarch butterflies. About how they looked and what they ate and their migratory patterns, and why it all mattered.

Why did it matter? Because they were part of the natural world around us. And there’s the thing: at Madoc Township Public School back in those good old days, we had a lot of lessons about the natural world around us. I remember learning about the parts of flowers and how they were pollinated. (It was actually sex ed, I realize in retrospect.) I remember learning about bulbs; in Grade 1, I believe it was, we planted one deep in a pot of soil, stored it through the winter in a dark, cool utility room, and marvelled when it blossomed in spring. It was a miracle! We learned about honeybees and trilliums, and took field trips in which we were asked to identify different kinds of trees and woodland plants. We learned about the part of the world in which we lived, in other words: what plants and trees grew there, what animals there were, and so on. In between learning reading, writing and long division.

I do not know what they teach in elementary and secondary schools these days, though from what I can tell as a college instructor, how to write a grammatical and correctly spelled and punctuated sentence is not among the subjects. And more’s the pity there, and really you should not get me started on that topic. But I wonder if, in the mad push to teach kids about self-esteem (yes, I know I sound cranky) and whatever else gets taught, there is any kind of introduction to the natural wonder that is the monarch butterfly.

And therefore I wonder whether schoolchildren still recognize and appreciate those silky pods by the side of the road in autumn. At any rate, I hope you do, readers. And hey: think about planting some milkweed and creating habitat for the monarchs!

8 thoughts on “Another roadside attraction – especially for the butterflies.

  1. I use the K-12 curriculum frequently in my work and I am happy to report that the word “environment” occurs 307 times in the Ontario gr.1-8 Science curriculum, and “Sustainability and stewardship” is one of the 5 fundamental concepts for the subject. Now as to what is actually taught, that is unknown. On the other hand the word “grammar” occurs only 19 times in the K-8 Language curriculum, so maybe it’s time for some lobbying!

  2. Away back when, when the world was young, before I started to school, I remember going with my older sister, Betty to a back field we called the “Well Field.” There were always those pesky milkweed plants growing there and school children of the day collected the fluff from milkweed pods to be sent to fill life preservers for our sailors during WW2! So, Betty and her little brother collected milkweed pods; a small bit to help in the war effort.

  3. I read some time ago of an entrepreneur who proposed to use the milkweed down for cold weather stuffing in sleeping bags and outdoor clothing. Seems the big problem is getting the seeds off. Now there’s a job for someone a, “Milkweed Seed Picker”.

    By the way if anyone wants a milkweed pod photo, I have lots. It was one of my projects in the 80’s and 90’s.

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