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Essay

Wheat and the Weeds, eh…Milkweed

By October 15, 2015 5 Comments
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Cones of the European Yew

On the north side of the church building running the length of the sanctuary as it meets the sidewalk and adjoining street are four evergreen shrubs, European yew or Taxus baccata. As all conifers are they are cone-bearing seed plants, but the yew is particularly unique in that their cones are most modified of the conifers with the female cones producing a single scale that encases a single seed or ovule. The seed as well as most of the rest of the yew plant has a toxic substance called taxine and is poisonous to humans and livestock. That single scale however, develops into a soft bright red sugar-filled berry-like cone that is not toxic and is often eaten by birds who are able to pass the poisonous seed through their digestive system undamaged. Mutually beneficial, the yew feeds the birds as the birds disperse the yew’s seeds. It is now during the month of October that the fruit-like cone is “ripening” and birds can begin to feast.

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Winter is coming

If you were walking down Palmetto Street however, keeping an eye to the flora and fauna of the urban sidewalk it might not be the berry-like cones or the evergreen shrubs that first grabs your attention. Rather, you would mostly be drawn to the big weed growing out of one of those shrubs. “Someone needs to take a better care of their gardening,” you might think. True. A weed is simply a plant that is unintendedly growing where you do not want it. It competes for space or resources. It may be unattractive, or invasive, but mostly, it’s out of order, the order which you are a part of or have contrived. Growing out of the center of one of the yew bushes is a now spindly-looking common milkweed plant (Asclepias syriaca), leaves mottled brown and beginning to detach, with full seed pods attached to the sturdy stems.

From a landscaping aesthetics standpoint the milkweed is certainly a weed. It is out of place, definitely not part of the designed order of the church grounds. From where the wispy little seed that started this plant first came from I do not know for I’ve seen no other milkweed plants anywhere nearby. Yet once planted, by wind or whatever, it has grown healthy and vibrant and allowed to stay it has become fruitful. And by fruitful I mean not only the full seed pods (or follicles as they are officially called) but by how the plant has fed a wider community or organisms, a mutually beneficial relationship with various bees and other insects. But in particular, and the real reason I left a weed growing in the middle of a bush all summer was because of the monarch butterfly.

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Milkweed follicle

The monarch butterfly is a spectacular creature not only because of its beauty but because of the incredible journey some butterflies take in their migration to wintering grounds in California and Mexico. Some monarch butterflies travel up to 3000 miles, the longest of any North American butterflies. Not only is this special in itself, but those individuals who make that journey return to places that previous monarchs also returned to. That is pretty amazing and we might think of various fish species who return to spawn in rivers where they were hatched. What makes the monarchs’ journey and behavior especially unusual is that there are multiple generations between those who migrate each year. How are they able to make the journey that their great-great-great grandparents made and even sometimes migrating the very same route?

Sadly, the monarch is in trouble. The numbers who are making the winter migration has lessened in recent years. The reasons may be many, from habitat destruction to pollution, but the primary cause seems to be related to the lack of the monarch butterfly’s larval food source: the milkweed. Perhaps it has to do with our agricultural practices of farming fencerow to fencerow and use of herbicides. There is just less milkweed around. And during their time and larvae, better known as caterpillars, milkweed is almost exclusively the diet of monarch. Less milkweed means fewer monarch butterflies.

Which brings me back to the weed growing in the middle of the bush… I know my one bunch of milkweed is not going to save the monarch butterfly, at least not all by itself. But maybe the out of ordinary reminder that this particular weed was left to grow—I made a pastoral executive decision and requested numerous persons in the congregation NOT to clean up (remove) this weed—will serve to hasten other decisions that also are mutually beneficial to the wider community not only of people but other parts of God’s creation.

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Milkweed in flower being enjoyed by bees from earlier this summer.

There’s a theology operating here too. Firstly, the reality that God in Christ is reconciling all things and has given us the ministry of reconciliation. Surely all things must include the monarch butterfly. But there’s also a false kind of belief that keeping the milkweed growing spoke to, that somehow getting rid of all of the weeds in our lives doesn’t make everything right. We so desire order and stability but often under our own terms, our own aesthetics. We in the church do that all the time. Keeping the weed reminds me that maybe another order is in place, an overarching order that I can only sometimes discern. Maybe…

Once the cold weather sets in I will harvest those milkweed seed pods and hope to plant the seeds in some other flower beds around the churchyard come spring. As for the plant itself, I will hopefully dig up the milkweed rhizomes and relocate it to someplace a little more appropriate (my above theologizing notwithstanding.)

5 Comments

  • Jill C Fenske says:

    Thanks Tom. We have three milk weed plants in our church lawn, which we have cordoned off so the lawn guy won’t mow them down. For me it is a statement of both hope and providence. God, bless the butterflies and their kind.

  • Daniel Meeter says:

    I loved this, both biologically and theologically. And I too left the milkweeds alone behind the cottage. I won’t have a chance to harvest the pod and replant, but there seem to be enough seeds in the air already for us to have a bunch of volunteers.

  • Thomas Goodhart says:

    Thank you, Jill and Daniel!

  • Mark Kornelis says:

    Thanks for this piece Tom. I too am attempting to propagate my butterfly milkweed plants in my front yard in Holland, along with other perennials native to the area. Not sure all of my neighbors appreciate it but it is a popular spot for butterflies.

    • Thomas Goodhart says:

      Thank you, Mark! I have always admired your yard, for what it’s worth. I left native asters, two varieties, growing in front of the parsonage all year. They have looked rather unruly and weedy all summer, until a couple weeks ago, now filling the space with beautiful purple and white.

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