They are spindly and sickly looking plants to the untrained eye. But to Matt Garrett, field biologist for the Johnson County Park and Recreation Department, the 10 new Mead’s milkweed plants in Kill Creek Park represent a small glimmer of hope for a vanishing plant in a vanishing ecosystem.
Garrett and a couple of volunteers set the plants out on one of the last tracts of virgin prairie in the state of Kansas earlier this month with hopes that their seeds will strengthen the gene pool of the few Mead’s milkweeds already out there.
It wasn’t a huge crowd, on the hot and windy afternoon when the plants were set out. “But it’s a huge deal,” said Linda Lehrbaum, program manager of Kansas City WildLands, which is also involved in the project. “It’s like releasing a condor or something.”
All types of milkweed are still shaking off the “noxious weed” declarations many states tagged them with a few years back. Milkweed is critical to the survival of monarch butterflies, which lay eggs on them and also drink the nectar. However the butterflies are also at risk, not only because of milkweed eradication but also because of deforestation in their wintering grounds.
“So you have an imperiled butterfly using a threatened plant on increasingly smaller patches of prairie,” Garrett said. “The remnant prairie Mead’s needs to survive is truly one of the most threatened, least-protected habitats on the globe.”
Mead’s milkweed is considered in peril by about every agency or group that does rankings. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service calls it threatened, the Missouri Department of Conservation calls it endangered and it has a “globally imperiled” ranking from NatureServe, a nonprofit conservation organization. In Kansas, plants are not given ratings for endangerment.
But that doesn’t mean they’re not at risk. Mead’s milkweed only grows on undisturbed prairie because the soil structure and organisms it needs are destroyed by plowing, Garrett said. Not even prairie restored from previous farming will support the species.
But untouched prairie remnants are hard to find. Kill Creek Park’s 18-acre remnant is the only one in Johnson County, he said.
Nationally, Mead’s milkweed is known on only 171 sites in 30 counties in Kansas, Missouri, Iowa and Illinois, he said.
A few have been spotted at Kill Creek Park and cataloged by naturalists who get GPS coordinates so they can check on the plants every so often. But the plants need a little help because of their isolation, Garrett said.
Mead’s milkweed grows only a couple of feet tall and must have cross-pollination from another plant to produce a seed pod. But when there are only a few plants at widely dispersed prairie sites, they can be weakened by inbreeding. The milkweed planted at Kill Creek Park was from Miami County — far enough away that it should strengthen the gene pool, Garrett said.
The plants that went out earlier this month looked spindly because milkweed typically die back and go dormant this time of year, he said. But the roots are still alive and will be watered periodically to keep them happy.
Next year, naturalists will search for more Mead’s milkweed seed pods that will be nurtured into more roots in greenhouses. But they won’t likely find any pods on the new plants. It can take up to 15 years to produce Mead’s milkweed seeds in the harsh conditions of the prairie.
There are federal recovery efforts for the plant, but they require many more open acres than the 18 at Kill Creek Park. Local conservationists are getting involved anyway. Besides Kill Creek Park, there’s a Mead’s recovery program at Marais des Cygne National Wildlife Refuge. Powell Gardens also grows some seed.
“I don’t want to stand by and watch this plant disappear,” Garrett said.