Feb 16, 2021

The Great Milkweed Road Trip


Michael Brown

I have a source for some rare bourbon.

Every year, I make the drive to the New York City area from Florida. I drive because you can’t ship it and I don’t want to check it in baggage on a plane. So that was the purpose of the trip.

I also had one big crop of young milkweed plants that my daughter and I had planted. A few years ago I read an article about the life of the Monarch and the threat to its existence. The only thing that a monarch butterfly lays its eggs on and the only plant that a monarch caterpillar eats is milkweed. I was like “Wow, that’s unbelievable.” I am not a scientist, biologist, lepidopterist or environmentalist. Just a guy. I’ve always thought monarch butterflies were beautiful.

I needed a break from the everyday. So I took my dog, I took my plants, and I drove from Florida, drove all over the place, visited a bunch of Civil War battlefields, every rest stop I stopped at. I wanted to slow my pace for a change. I just started planting these plants. State parks, national parks, rest stops, Starbucks. I pulled off at the smallest church in the United States which is in Georgia and planted some there. I planted milkweed at Antietam and I planted at Gettysburg and I planted at Appomattox Courthouse. At Residence Inn. It was fun. Really simple, just stick ‘em in the ground somewhere where you think they’re going to grow.

People wonder what you do to get the butterflies to where the plants are and you don’t do anything. They’ll just find it. You plant it and you wait a little while and they’ll find it.

Visually, they are this very bold black and orange.

They are really striking with their colors. They actually look like a tiger, the same colors, darker orange and the black and the white and the stripes. You’re well aware that they’re there. They’re very delicate and they’re endangered but they’re really resilient.

The number one reason they’re declining is the loss of habitat (because of herbicides). If you think about the Midwest, big Midwestern farms like mine, or anywhere, they have improved and perfected weed control and herbicides for corn and soybeans where nothing will grow except corn and soybeans. They’ve really wiped out the weeds. Milkweed is really prevalent in wide open fields and wide open places.

We’re not dealing with something that itself isn’t able to survive. It’s really the environment that it’s in. It’s a simple fix. Create more habitat for them to proliferate. Plant more milkweed, which I didn’t understand at first. I grew up in Wisconsin — our family has a farm there — there’s milkweed everywhere. I just thought it was a big ugly weed. But then when you really pay attention to it, you have 100 caterpillars. Fifty to a hundred caterpillars and you keep finding more.

There is a website where you can get milkweed seeds depending on what zone of the country you live in — you get the particular type of milkweed that grows there. Sure enough I got three hundred seeds in the mail, for free, by the way. So then my four year old and I we started planting milkweed and that’s really how it happened. Constantly harvesting seeds, planting milkweed. We’ve probably got three or four hundred milkweed plants. And the monarchs just find it. We’re constantly having caterpillars and monarchs. You just start ‘em in starter pots inside and at some point put ‘em outside.

They’re not afraid.

If you’re lucky enough to make the trip to Mexico where the monarchs migrate to, they will land on you and fly around. They’ll fly right around you. They’re very social, and they’ll come right up and pay attention.

They’re coming out of Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, New York— it’s a pretty long trip. Nobody really understands how they know where to go. I don’t think it’s as easy to understand as geese. The geese flock up and they fly. I think it’s individual butterflies that make their way to where they go.

There’s only one series of the butterfly that goes down and back. The others go down and they don’t survive. The caterpillars they produce there, they grow into butterflies and they’re the ones that return. I’ve never been to the place in Mexico. I’ve seen pictures and videos of it, which are unbelievable. They’re so many butterflies on these fir trees. There is a specific type of tree down there that they gravitate toward. They weight down the branches of these evergreens. There’s millions and millions of them. There are so many that you can hear the sounds of their wings beating. I’m in awe. They’re mystical. It’s just amazing, the life they have, the cycles of life they go through to become a butterfly. The cycles of life they have as a butterfly. They live such an interesting life.

From egg to full grown caterpillar is like two weeks. It’s unbelievably fast. And then they disappear. They go hide somewhere and go into their chrysalis and you watch the transformation and they come out of the chrysalis and you watch the transformation. They hang there and they dry…and then they fly. I will never get tired of that. I will always be in awe of that.

As told to Jason Schwartzman, True Senior Editor

Michael Brown

Whiskey Connoisseur
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