I’ve planted many things in our garden over the years—romaine and oakleaf lettuce, red, green, spotted; purple and yellow and sometimes orange carrots; tomatoes gnarled and smooth; zucchini with tasty blossoms; cucumbers Chinese and Persian and Indian, including one, poona kheera, that looked like a potato; foot-long red beans; arugula; tatsoi; bok choy; komatsuna and mizuna; New Zealand spinach and Malabar spinach and red spinach and regular old spinach; kale; cilantro; dill (which really just plants itself); Asian basil and sweet basil and holy basil; mustard greens; broccoli raab; ground cherries; tomatillos; shiso; culantro; papaloquelite; green and lime green and red chard; Chioggia beets with target-like rings; radishes Japanese and French; wide Italian green beans and tri-color beans; habanero peppers and jalapeno peppers and serrano peppers and tabasco peppers and hot Thai peppers and banana peppers and cubanelle peppers and ancho peppers and sweet bell peppers large enough for a bird to build a nest in; butternut and acorn and delicata and blue hubbard squash; dark drops of eggplant; pumpkins; fingerling potatoes that one summer fed a fury of voles; asparagus; onions; flat Chinese chives; blue stars of borage; sour sorrel; peas sweet and snow; Persian cress; parsley (which travels to hell and back before it finally pops up through the soil). Seeds carry in them dishes from faraway places. Plants emerge from the ground, evocative as recipes, mysterious as maps.
After planting, I hover. Seeds such as radishes or arugula satisfy my impatience, their green cotyledons arriving in two days sometimes. But most take a bit more waiting. I’m always relieved to see that things have sprouted, and worried when they don’t. These seeds are my responsibility, and I hate it when I screw them up. This year an expensive package of ten seeds—my favorite tiny cucumber (the “Rocky” variety)—failed to sprout; seven dollars rotting somewhere in the dirt. I could’ve planted a few quarters in each hole. At least then I could’ve dug them up and used them for something else.
There’s one seed I plant each year that I don’t hover over, don’t even bother noticing which come up, or, for that matter, where. And yet, these seeds are the most fun to sow of all of them: common milkweed. Near our vegetable garden lies a little field of tall grass surrounded by trees we’ve planted to screen the yard. In the summer the pink rubbery flower heads bloom and droop, and in the fall I crack open the dried seed pods with their layers of seeds inside, each attached to a bit of silken fluff. Rubbing the seeds between my fingers, I separate them from one another and free them to the breeze, each floating across the field. I give the dog a stem of pods to grab in her mouth, and she runs through the grass, seeds releasing.
The milkweed is doing well this year, blossoms thickly sweet, but it took me some time to realize that something was wrong. I love the milkweed flowers, but the main reason I plant them is for the butterflies, the orange and black monarchs that drift around the yard and lay their eggs on the plants; milkweed is the only food the caterpillars eat. The milkweed transfers to the butterfly a poison, making it untasty to predators. Standing in the yard this week, watching a different species of orange butterfly drop in and out of flowers, I realized it was mid-July, and I had yet to see a monarch, probably the most recognizable butterfly in the country, an icon of summer.
The monarchs in our part of the country live and reproduce during their migration to northern United States and Canada, laying eggs on milkweed that hatch into caterpillars which develop into butterflies that continue the journey north. The fourth generation returns south in one long trip, where they winter in Mexico before starting back north, following a trail of milkweed blossoms. No one completely understands how they manage this feat, though we take their summertime presence for granted.
Drought certainly has hurt the species. But my beloved milkweed is unloved by farmers, or at least unappreciated, and over the years, increased use of herbicide has eradicated it from soy and corn fields, leaving much of what was once vast areas of monarch habitat—the American middle—less habitable for the butterflies. There’s simply less for them to eat. When I hear “endangered butterfly habitat,” I’m inclined to imagine someone in South America cutting down a rainforest rather than farmers growing corn in Ohio. Blame is one thing that migrates effortlessly.
Yesterday, I finally spotted a monarch, or at least I’m pretty sure I did—large and orange and swaying over the milkweed before disappearing behind the trees.