A milkweed giveaway at the DuPont Circle Farmers Market went by in a hurry today, with people snapping up the plant plugs to help sustain migration of monarch butterflies through the area.
“It seems like we give away more every year,” said Steve Aupperle, who started the free distribution of the plants about six years ago with Phil Carney.
Aupperle and Carney, who also are the developers of a garden on a wedge of ground just off Massachusetts Avenue on the east side of the circle, manned a stand at the corner of Q and 20th streets, drawing their own flock of prospective caterers to the monarchs.
Among them was Foggy Bottom high-rise dweller Cathy Raines, who said she planned to plant her plug on the building’s rooftop garden. “I love the idea of attracting butterflies,” said Raines, a member of the garden’s watering committee. “It’s good for the planet.”
The butterflies, with their distinctive black-veined orange wings, migrate in the fall from Canada to Mexico and then head back in the spring, showing attraction to milkweed. The eggs they lay produce a striped caterpillar that feeds on the milkweed, according to “Butterflies And Moths,” A Golden Guide, which notes the dietary preference makes the insect distasteful to birds. The egg-to-adult-butterfly transition takes about a month.
Milkweed is a sappy perennial that grows 2- to 4-feet tall, with clusters of fragrant pink to white flowers, and produces a pod packed with seeds with silky hairs, according to the University of Maryland Master Gardener Handbook. But there are multiple varieties, with different characteristics.
Apparently, the insect’s relationship with the plant is nuanced. Too much of the milkweed sap might also have toxic affects on the caterpillars, according to the University of Minnesota Monarch Lab, which reports research indicating that they feed on the plants in a way that is meant to cut the flow of the latex to areas of the leaf where they eat.
Aupperle said the one-day distribution usually occurs toward the end of May. Aupperle said the total this year was about 360 tropical milkweed plugs and about 24 swamp milkweed plugs. He said Carney plants additional plugs in places around DuPont Circle.
Aupperle grows the swamp variety plugs himself. George Miller of Four Seasons Nursery in Charles Town, West Virginia, a vendor at the farmer’s market for nearly 20 years, grows the flats for the tropical variety, using seed provided by Aupperle.
“I have a heated greenhouse that accelerates plant maturation,” Miller said, noting it takes 8-10 days for the seed to germinate. “As a naturalist at heart, I just felt obliged to help Steve out, and the butterflies.”
Miller said he often sees the butterflies passing by in his rural area, with a weedy, wild variety of milkweed helping to sustain them. “When they flower the butterflies come in,” he said.
At the market, he’s heard favorable comments from people about results from the giveaway plants. “They’re very excited about it, being downtown and supporting any of the butterflies that make it into the city,” Miller said.
Aupperle said the monarchs have made his place a regular pit stop.
“Last year, I just happened to be around when they flew through on a Saturday,” he said. “I probably had 25 or 30 fly through my yard in one day. And then they were gone.”