This Thing Called Courage

Monday, February 01, 2010

Happy Spring!

WELL, IN IRELAND IT IS, ANYWAY, at least the traditional first day of Spring, and any day now the first Irish daffodils will start showing up in area markets. In Ireland this is the first day of Imbolc (IM-mulk), or spring, which runs from February 1 to sunset on April 30-- which brings in May Day and the first day of Bealtaine (BELL-uh-TAHN-yuh): like many other ancient cultures, the new Celtic day begins at sunset. Today also begins the 'Light of the Year,' that half of the year that runs from February 1 to July 31; with the beginning of Samhain (SOW-wun) on August 1, the Dark of the Year commences. Ireland's spring comes earlier than ours does, due to the fact that the Gulf Stream brushes the southern coast of Ireland, keeping the weather relatively moderate year round, despite the fact that it's as far north as Labrador.

I celebrate Imbolc by starting some of my seeds for this year's garden-- indoors, of course! the first plants I start each year are both Milkweed varieties, Common Milkweed (Asclepias vulgaris) and Butterfly Weed (Asclepias tuberosa) both beautiful native flowers that are hardly weeds at all. As Thoreau noted, a weed is simply a plant whose virtue man has yet to discover. Well, if man has been slow to discover the virtues of the milkweeds, the Monarch Butterfly certainly has not. In fact, the female Monarch lays her eggs on a milkweed plant and on a milkweed plant only. Without the milkweeds, there would be no Monarchs-- which is one of the reasons why I grow them. As habitat decreases and the Monarch faces other environmental challenges (herbicides, pesticides, and GMO food-- don't get me started on that) there are fewer milkweeds than there used to be. I raise about one hundred seedlings every year, and give most of them away so people can raise their own milkweed-- and attract Monarchs-- in their own gardens and fields. So let me know if anyone is interested, and I'd be happy to give you a few plants. They're pretty easy to grow, and, though they take a year or two to flower, their fragrance is heavenly, and you'll be making your garden more butterfly-friendly.

The Monarchs truly are one of nature's marvels. Each year, North American Monarchs migrate (the only butterfly species to do so) by the millions, as far as 4000 miles away, to a very specific microclimate in the mountains of central Mexico (which are also under siege due to illegal logging and lack of enforcement of the law). Beginning in the spring, they begin to migrate north again, breeding and laying eggs as they do. That first generation dies, then the next generation emerges from their cocoons and begins the process again. As spring moves northward-- about one hundred miles a week-- so do the Monarchs. The fourth generation reaches northern New England and Canada by summer's end, and these are the ones who will migrate back down to Mexico-- an amazing process science is still trying to figure out. In fact, try to catch this week's Nova on PBS, which features 'The Amazing Migration of the Monarch Butterfly,' an episode I've been waiting all winter to catch.

Another interesting feature about the Monarchs is the fact that the milkweeds-- again, the only plant the female Monarch lays her eggs on, and the only plant the young caterpillars eat-- is toxic to all other living things (although humans can harvest young shoots when they first come up in the spring-- but try to refrain: the Monarchs need them more than we do). The Monarchs have built up a tolerance to milkweed over the eons. So if a bird or other predator ever takes a bite out of a Monarch-- argghh!-- it spits it right out again and won't try a second time. Other butterflies (the painted lady, for example) have mimicked the Monarch's markings to also protect themselves from predators, though they, in fact, aren't toxic at all. Another thing people can do to help the Monarchs is let a part (or all) of your lawn go to meadow (in other words, don't cut it) and grow native flowers, the nectar of which the Monarchs will feed on as they migrate south. In fact one of the other hats I wear is that of proprietor of Vision landscape, a design/build landscaping business that creates water gardens, meditative and contemplative gardens, wild gardens, new installations, perennial gardens, etc for people. One of our newer endeavors is to help people turn their lawns into vegetable gardens.