Can a butterfly flapping its wings in Washington, D.C., inspire a tidal wave of conservation across the country?

Scouts from the National Capital Area Council seem to think so.

Hundreds of D.C.-area Scouts have pledged to help save the monarch by planting milkweed. You see, the caterpillars that become these orange-and-black butterflies rely on milkweed for food. But milkweed is disappearing — and the monarchs are vanishing, too.

They call this service project Milkweed for Monarchs, and it’s a massively ambitious effort to protect this pollinator whose numbers have decreased by more than 90 percent over the past two decades.

What they’ve done so far

Scouts and members of the community who pledged to plant milkweed received seeds and the cool patch seen at the top of this post. They also got invited to a special kickoff celebration last month at the United States National Arboretum in Washington.

The Scouts’ efforts are taking root. The seeds are beginning to sprout, and the council is planning a second event for those who couldn’t attend the kickoff. Scouts are sharing what they’ve learned with others, helping raise awareness about monarchs.

Word of this great project has migrated west. Conservationists in California, Washington state and British Columbia are joining the cause. Some have even contacted Scouts in their area to see if they might want to replicate the project there.

Speaking of, this isn’t the National Capital Area Council’s secret. The council tells me it’s ready to assist other councils that might want to create a similar program. Just contact Daniel Hirsch, the council’s PR director, to learn more.

“Hopefully you can share the story of our efforts with others, and together, we can help avert this ecological calamity,” Hirsch says.

Photo by Yong Ho

How you can help

You can help by planting and cultivating milkweed. Fortunately for those lacking green thumbs, the plants are easy to maintain and are perennials — meaning they return year after year.

To get started, follow these steps from the National Capital Area Council:

If you’re planting outside:

  • Plant seeds in moist soil after the threat of frost.
  • Plant in soil less than ¼ inch deep and seedlings 6 inches apart from one another.

If starting your plants by planting indoors:

  • Start plants in pots using the same planting depth and spacing as if you were planting outside.
  • Place seedlings near a window or fan so that their stems are strengthened from air movement.
  • Allow 4-8 weeks growing time before moving your plants to ground outside.

To continue growth:

  • Water your milkweed plants every few days until each plant grows to a height of 1 foot or taller.
  • Group your milkweed in groups of at least 6 plants so that monarch caterpillars have enough food to eat.
  • Plant groups of milkweed in several different areas to offer different environments for the plant and monarch caterpillars.
  • In the winter, do not cut. Instead, allow some dead plant material to remain for birds and other wildlife to use.
  • Once you have established plants, grow new milkweed by taking cuttings and placing them in distilled water for 4 weeks to start new plants. Cuttings tend to be more resilient than seedlings and may produce better results.

Learn more

At the National Capital Area Council’s Milkweed for Monarchs page.

If your Scout unit decides to participate, be sure to send me some photos/details.

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