Living Acres

Living Acres: The Research

August 29, 2016

Small Milkweed Plantings

Over the last year, BASF has taken to the research fields to find the best practices for planting milkweed. The first trial took place during the summer of 2015 in Holly Springs, North Carolina. This initial study had one goal in mind: figure out how to grow milkweed.

During the inaugural Living Acres research trial, scientists at BASF observed the way milkweed plants were established from various methods of planting, such as planting seeds, root stalk or transplants. They planted two species of milkweed, common milkweed and butterfly milkweed. The first year of research found that milkweed is quite difficult to grow from seed. The milkweed plants of either species that did best were those that grew from transplants. Root stalk and then seeds were the next most successful plantings. Since seedlings require a time-intensive process to begin, the recommendation from this initial study is to plant milkweed root stalk sections for the easiest and most successful start to a milkweed stand.

Much to their surprise, researchers found monarch butterflies on the plants the first year including larvae and several chrysalides. Many of the chrysalides found on the Holly Springs farm were several feet away from the milkweed plot. After doing a bit of secondary research, the team found that monarch larvae can crawl hundreds of feet from where they hatch to find safe places to undergo metamorphosis.

This summer, two additional milkweed research plots were planted at the Seymour, Illinois and Story City, Iowa research farms. These two news plots, as well as the Holly Springs plot, were planted in non-cropland areas around the farm. Ditches, river embankments and CRP (Conservation Reserve Program) lands were utilized to demonstrate where a farmer might plant milkweed and the trials they might face in establishing milkweed in these areas.

And the plots were not without trials. The milkweed in Story City was hit with a heavy hail storm soon after planting and then contended with a period of significant drought. The milkweed at the Seymour location had fierce competition from the existing plants and grasses in the CRP land.

There were surprises with these plots as well. The CRP land in Seymour was already chock-full of native common milkweed plants, with some even crossing paths with the research plots planted there.

The official findings from these plots are still pending, but there have been takeaways from this summer’s research. There does not appear to be any encroachment of milkweed into production fields, as seen by the native milkweed in Seymour. Young milkweed plants started from seedling transplants or root stalk are more competitive than expected, even under significant stress. Next spring will reveal whether milkweed suffering hail and drought damage can rebound to produce strong, healthy plants that can support monarch butterfly reproduction.

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