The Milkweed Lands offers a sweeping but detailed view of a plant that is synonymous with Monarch butterflies. To this Brit, anyway. Thanks to the publishers and Net-Galley, I discovered there’s a lot more to it than that. This is due for publication on 26 September.
The Milkweed Lands
An Epic Story of One Plant: its Nature and Ecology
by Eric Lee-Mäder, illustrations by Beverly Duncan
Delve into this fascinating appreciation of milkweed, an often-overlooked plant, and discover an amazing range of insects and organisms that depend on it as the seasons unfold, with this collaboration between a noted ecologist and an award-winning botanical illustrator.
Ecologist Eric Lee-Mäder and noted botanical artist Beverly Duncan have teamed up to create this unique exploration of the complex ecosystem that is supported by the remarkable milkweed plant, often over-looked or dismissed as a roadside weed. With stunning, up-close illustrations and engaging text, they trace every stage of the plant’s changes and evolutions throughout the seasons, including germination, growth, flowering, and seed development.
Simultaneously, they chronicle the lives of the many creatures whose lives are intertwined with the monarch butterflies; soldier and queen butterflies; milkweed tussock moths; large and small milkweed bugs; milkweed weevils; bumble bees; goldfinches; and more. The delightful illustrations and illuminating text give the reader the feeling of browsing an avid naturalist’s sketchbook, while also learning about different milkweed species, how to propagate milkweed in the garden, the industrial uses of milkweed, interesting milkweed relatives, and more. [goodreads]
First off, I made a good decision to read this on my iPad. Don’t even attempt to read this on anything as old as a Kindle Paperwhite. The illustrations are both beautifying and an integral part of some of the story. Not being able to see the beautiful botanic diagrams and sketches of the life cycle of the plant, the variations in seed casing, or the effect of certain parasitic wasps on the milkweed aphid would be to lose half the content.
The books sweeps through the impact of milkweed on the environment. And the farming environment’s, especially of middle America and the plains of California, on the milkweed – and the rest of its ecosystem. Anyone sensitive to the pollution and toxic chemicals sprayed over vast areas of your country should wake up to the truth of the matter. Most farmers don’t care. I could make a political link, here, but I’ll leave that to you.
Milkweed is one of the survivors, thanks in part to native plant enthusiasts like the author. He works with like-minded people to cultivate and reintroduce useful native species with a long history of providing health benefits. Hedgerow Farms (near that intensive farming desert of California) is one such organisation. It sounds like an oasis of ecosystem management for healthy and balanced growth.
Since I know very little about the ecosystems of Middle America, I found all this fascinating. I loved the way the author started in the winter, when the ground is mostly snowcovered for months. Who would have thought there was so much life below the blanket? He examined the different animals of all types that depend on this plant, despite its sap being toxic to most. It makes them toxic too, which is a handy way of warning off their predators. Some information he goes into in some detail – look away now if you’re squeamish about the fate of the milkweed aphid, which is to be eaten from within by the parasitic wasp larva. There are several of examples of this in the UK, too. The approach is much used by gardeners to control slug and snail populations (a nematode, but same result).
The author also goes into detail about the peculiarities of the milkweed pollination system, which is very similar to that of orchids. I was glad I’d read the Orchid Outlaw beforehand, as Jacob’s description is clearer.
I found it a little uneven in its approach to its subjects, though. Some seemed to be dismissed with a mere mention, often when I would have liked to have known more, especially when talking about the Upper Mississippi area. This uneveness also applies to the voice: some is authoritative (and he obviously knows his stuff) but some seems to be addressing high school students. Maybe he is unsure who exactly will read his book?
It is also a quick read. Even though I paused to study most of the illustrations, although not necessarily those with just keys, I finished it in around two hours. Did the publisher think it would not keep our attention longer? I would happily have had a more detailed approach to many other aspects he glossed over. Maybe this is the publisher at work, sensitive to the nuances of the middle America reading public. I hope it at least finds a place in their libraries.