Common milkweed was growing along the waterway. Each stand with purple clusters of flowers was populated by healthy, strong Monarchs. The common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) grows extensively in the Tallgrass Prairie of northern Oklahoma and seems to be quite happy in Tulsa. It is a late bloomer, August through October, which gives the southward winging Monarchs a boost of energy on their way to Mexico. The orange Butterfly milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa) comes into flower in May and our earliest bloomer in central and eastern Oklahoma, the prairie Green Antelope Horn (Asclepias viridis) attracts the earliest spring generation of Monarchs fluttering northward out of Mexico. In between are 23 other species that may grow only in one county or practically across the entire state.
Last weekend I was in southwest Oklahoma observing Monarchs. This weekend my travels took me to northeast Oklahoma to The Gathering Place in Tulsa. I certainly did not expect to see dozens of Monarchs, yet here they were, monopolizing the milkweed. People of all ages were zeroing in on the butterflies, taking one picture after another. The milkweed had been planted alongside the large pond fed by canals of water that course throughout part of this spanking brand-new park.
The Gathering Place just opened September 8th 2018. This is an atypical people park landscaped with hills, valleys, streams and paths all nestled within native plants and trees. The unusual park, spread over about 100 acres by the Arkansas River, took four years to construct at a cost of $465 million. Money was donated mainly by the Kaiser Family Foundation and a multitude of local companies. Before you roll your eyes skyward, go see this place. It has theme areas such as children’s sections—Fairyland Forest, Skywalk Forest with zip line, Mist Mountain, etc. Teenage and adult areas include Williams Lodge (an eclectic arrangement of stained vertically stacked wood, wood furniture, fireplaces and numerous sitting places), the OneOK Boat House with rental canoes, walking paths (many weaving through fifteen foot tall stacks of thick sandstone rocks), sports courts and bicycle lanes. The highest part of the garden, Swing Hill, actually towers 60 feet above the Arkansas River.
This imaginative park has already become a people…and Monarch…magnet. Undulating prairie is how I would describe its foundation. Prairies once dominated the central United States. These ecosystems experience less rain, hotter summers and colder winters. Deep prairie soils have abundant organic matter that encourage extensive root development of many grasses that thrive in full sun.
The Gathering Place Prairieland is in autumn mode and beginning to shut down for the winter. Some of the grasses may look untidy, but offer protected areas for overwintering insects and pupae, cover for wildlife and a reservoir for the storage of next spring’s seeds. The common milkweed, asters, Indian Blanket and other native wildflowers add a continuous spectrum of color.
Common milkweed is one of the few milkweeds easily grown from seed. The perennial is drought tolerant. The pinkish purple flowers have a sweet scent attractive to hummingbirds, moths, butterflies and other insects. Although I have seen it over 6 feet tall, it usually levels off at 2 to 3 feet in height. Plant with grasses and other wildflowers to control its ‘conquer the world’ tendency. FYI, Common milkweed can cross with the western American Showy milkweed (Asclepias speciosa).
Milkweed stems have strong fibers which can be twisted together to form string and cord. Use dried stems after the plant has died back. Milkweed species produce cardiac glycosides, resinoids and alkaloids. Even so, young milkweed shoots, stems, flower buds, and seeds were used in medicinal preparations by indigenous groups of eastern and mid-western America.
Monarchs take advantage of the cardiac glycosides which are taken up by the caterpillars as they munch their way through milkweed. The nasty taste is reinforced if the adults can nectar at milkweeds as well. As a matter of fact, once the common milkweed goes down for the winter, break the stalks off at the ground. This encourages resprouting the next spring. Common milkweed can also be divided by harvesting the rhizomes and cutting into pieces—each with a bud. Plant in late fall so the milkweeds can develop roots to carry them through the winter. First year cuttings need some tender loving care (water), but by the second year can survive just fine (usually). Seedlings and cuttings both bloom second year, but cuttings have been known to bloom during their first year.
Monarch butterflies are not a creation of man. They are part of something so much larger it is unfathomable. Why not make a wildscape garden for next spring. The pure beauty of life is found in nature.