I stepped out of my office in downtown Orleans one day in September and headed out for a walk. I like having an office in town, and being able to stroll along the street staring into store windows, pretending I'm seeking inspiration for a brilliant essay or best-selling poem, and not having to stop every nine seconds for a short companion to sniff at a suspicious piece of grass or water an ornamental azalea.
I walked past some stores and some restaurants and an office or two and then cut through the Christmas Tree Shop parking lot to head back to work. But as I was passing the front door, I stopped dead at the sight of a great big rack full of potted plants. It was Asclepias tuberosa. Butterfly weed. $9.99 for a gallon pot.
Now, that's exactly what shop window and outdoor displays are designed to do: stop potential customers in their tracks. A customer may stop because the display's beautiful or surprising, or it's just what the customer has been looking for, though she didn't realize it until this very instant. I myself stopped because I was astonished that Butterfly weed was being sold at the Christmas Tree Shop.
All you Monarch butterfly fans out there know that Butterfly weed is part of the milkweed family, which is the only thing in the world that baby monarch butterflies, aka caterpillars, can eat. They die without milkweed. If you're gardeners, you also know that butterfly weed and its cousin milkweeds have, until very recently, been difficult to find at traditional nurseries. And they've been unheard of at the big box stores.
That's changing, of course, as people have become more aware of the disappearance of milkweed in the wild and the butterflies' resulting drop in population. More nurseries and garden shops are carrying milkweed and other native plants. And I shouldn't have been too surprised, since Asclepias tuberosa was the 2017 Perennial Plant of the Year and therefore was produced by the millions. And the Christmas Tree Shops are no slackers when it comes to selling things that are mass produced.
It's a good thing, I guess, that the lifeblood of the monarch butterfly is being sold in vast numbers to even the clueless. I worry, of course, that plants that are mass produced are more likely to have been treated with neonicotinoids and other pesticides that might actually harm, or even kill, their primary consumers.
You can parse these things so far down into the details. Is it good? Is it bad? Is the good part good enough to outweigh the bad? Will the bad last longer than the good? Should we encourage people who don't know, and don't want to know, the gory details, to buy the plants that will save the butterflies, when in fact it could hasten their collective demise?
I kept my own wallet in my pocket and strolled back to the office, pondering the difficulties of being a monarch amid the uncertainties of the commercial world, and sat down to write this brilliant essay. Tomorrow I'll write the best-selling poem.