The Truth About Big Box Stores And Milkweed Is Really Upsetting

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The Truth About Big Box Stores And Milkweed Is Really Upsetting

Milkweed is a plant that holds great significance in many gardening circles. Some people admire its beauty, some need it to sustain monarch butterflies, and some dislike it because of its toxicity. Regardless of how one feels about the plant, it is a fact that monarchs cannot survive without it. Although adult monarchs can feed on almost any flower, the caterpillars only consume milkweed. Without milkweed, there will be no caterpillars, and monarchs will face extinction. Therefore, it is not surprising to see people encouraging others to plant milkweed. Unfortunately, buying milkweed is not always simple; many plants sold by big box stores contain pesticide residue that can harm monarchs.

Before purchasing milkweed, it is crucial to know whether it is safe to grow in your garden. In a perfect world, every plant would be free from harmful chemicals, but that is not the case. It is challenging to determine how commercially grown plants shipped to big box stores were cultivated, making your purchase a big question mark. Therefore, conducting research before buying a milkweed seedling is essential so that your good intentions do not result in sad consequences.

Big box milkweed isn’t always safe for monarchs

monarch on orange milkweed

Media Marketing/Shutterstock

Big box stores are convenient and affordable, there’s no doubt about it. You probably wish you could support local plant nurseries as much as possible, but the chains can sometimes fill your garden for half the price – who can resist? Before you save a dollar or two, consider a harrowing study carried out in 2021, published in Biological Conservation. Milkweed plant leaves were taken from plants purchased at big box stores across 15 states where monarch butterflies live or pass through during their migration. Every single plant had residue of at least one chemical pesticide, with one-third of the plants being contaminated with pesticides that have been proven lethal to monarchs.

You don’t always see pesticide residue, and if you do, there’s no way of knowing what it is without testing it first. Research plant suppliers to find out how they raise their plants so you can make an informed decision about whether you should introduce them to your garden or not. According to the IUNC Red List, monarch populations have declined for a decade, and though their populations have somewhat stabilized as of 2021, concern for this species is growing.

How to make sure your milkweed is safe

milkweed pod releasing seeds

Gurineb/Getty Images

The best way to ensure your milkweed is safe for monarchs is to purchase from nurseries that get their plants from pesticide-free suppliers or, at the very least, suppliers who use as few pesticides as possible. You can accomplish this by asking staff or owners about where their plants come from. Look for local growers who have organic milkweed plants. If you can’t find safe seedlings, you can always purchase organic seeds from reliable sellers and grow them yourself so you know exactly what went into raising the seedlings.

One thing to note as you embark on a journey for organic milkweed is that organic doesn’t mean pesticide-free, as you’ve probably been told. There are pesticides derived from plants, like pyrethrin, that come from chrysanthemums. This all-natural pest control doesn’t contain synthetic chemicals that can be safely sprayed on plants, although they’re still toxic to pollinators.

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Dr Heidi Parkes

By Dr Heidi Parkes

Senior Information Extension Officer QLD Dept of Agriculture & Fisheries.