Tough Puffs

Dandelions are one of those plants that people love to hate. They’re tenacious, perennial, copious; their tap roots run deep and even cut blossoms will still turn to seed heads if they aren’t culled early enough. Their leaves spread flat and wide, smothering anything beneath.

If we didn’t hate them, we’d love them for their reliability and bright sunny beauty. But the fact is, even though they were first introduced in the United States as a salad variety in the 1600s, the general consensus is that dandelions are weeds.

That’s why any weedkiller worth the name is made to wipe out dandelions. Oh, they just come back again – that’s just what dandelions do. As I ran by a freshly tilled field, I noticed bright globes of white scattered like rice at a wedding. Dandelion puffs, all in full seed, probably cut when the tractor was skimming the margins of the field.

Dandelion heads, farming, agriculture,plowed field

Severed dandelion puffs seeding a freshly tilled field.
Photo: PKR

Regardless of which crop is going to be grown on the field this season, it will include a healthy portion of dandelions. Unless, of course, the farmer sprays the ubiquitous glyphosate weedkiller – under trade pressure from the US and swayed by the vote of the Germany in support of Monsanto’s RoundUp in late 2017, the import and use of glyphosate has been extended for another five years in the European Union. This in spite of numerous studies showing the danger of the herbicide to the environment and to human health.

Dandelion heads, farming, agriculture,plowed field

Dandelions on the edge of a freshly plowed field.
Photo: PKR

At least the other chemical bugaboos of industrial farming, neonicotinoids, were banned by the EU for the foreseeable future. Good news for bees and other pollinators! It would be great to see the US follow suit.

Narrowing Focus

The monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus) population on the Mexican Monarch Reserve where they overwinter is the lowest since annual surveys began back in 1993. The oyamel fir forests provide a warm winter home for the monarchs, known for their great migration across North America. The population is down 59% from two years ago. In 1996, monarchs occupied 45 acres (18.2 ha) of forest. They now occupy 2.94 acres (1.2 ha).

Monarch butterfly wing Photo: Rare Giants

Monarch butterfly wing
Photo: Rare Giants

The entire migration process takes five butterfly generations to complete one full cycle, and over the past twenty years, fewer monarchs have been surviving the cycle to have their progeny return to the reserve.

The demise of the milkweed plant, mainly due to the use of glyphosate herbicides, means the butterflies are unable to find enough of their main food source. But extreme weather, deforestation and forest degradation, and regulatory rollbacks for protected areas also contribute to the dangers facing the species’ survival.

In Barbara Kingsolver’s novel Flight Behavoior, monarch butterflies disappear from Mexico almost entirely and find a new forest home in a completely unexpected location, alighting for a season before moving on. There’s always the hope that intensified efforts to replant milkweed and to strengthen protected migratory paths will help. And maybe, prior to the annual surveys, the monarch population experienced massive contractions that went unnoticed, only to recover again.

Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim has just announced a $100 million contribution to a variety of monarch programs. If there’s message here, it’s this: If you live in North America, go out and plant some milkweed. In your garden, on your balcony, on roadsides and byways. Sign a petition. Send a letter to your congressperson.

For now, the circle of monarchs retracts, a narrowing lens by which to observe these amazing creatures of long journeys on small wings.

Photo: Raul Gonzales

Close-up, monarch butterfly wing
Photo: Raul Gonzales