Mothers, Monarchs, and Milkweed

Marigolds for Mother's Day may be the standard, but Tom Murphy's fourth graders in Farmington, MN, have another twist. They gather seeds, nurture seedlings, and send their moms ... weeds!

By saving and raising seeds of swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata), Tom's students are able to share a lovely gift with mom that does double duty: It nourishes monarch butterflies and their larvae and provides fertile ground for students and their families to explore interdependence in nature.

"When our kids come back to school in the fall, they revel at the site of hundreds of adult monarch butterflies feeding on the nectar of the blazing star (Liatris aspera) in our native prairie garden," reports Tom. Because Tom's students help tag butterflies for project Monarch Watch (, they've also become attuned to other plants, such as swamp milkweed, that these butterflies seem to enjoy. Then, when students discover caterpillars, eggs, and larvae on the swamp milkweed, they collect some to raise in the classroom.

Coaxing Prairie Seeds

With an eye toward adding to their prairie garden's appealing banquet, Tom's students gather seeds from swamp milkweed, blazing star, and other prairie plants in the fall, then consider what conditions will coax them to germinate. "We discuss what might happen if seeds shed in the fall germinated immediately in our cold climate," says Tom.

Some students try sprouting sa few seeds as soon as they're collected in the fall, but discover that they won't germinate. This prompts a discussion of why this response might actually help the plants survive in a cold region. After proposing that the seeds might actually need a cold winter before they'll germinate, students brainstorm how they might simulate winter conditions. "Some years we have time for students to experiment with different types of conditions; other years we use what other classes have found works best: placing seeds in plastic sandwich bags of damp sand, then keeping them refrigerated for eight to twelve weeks," explains Tom. Students take home the bagged mix and a letter to parents describing the project and reminding them when to return the seeds.

In late winter, students bring back packets of "chilled" seeds, place pinches of the sand and seed mixture on moist paper towels, then keep them in a tray with a humidity dome. "When some germinate better than others, we discuss what might cause the variations, such as differences in moisture," notes Tom. In early March, students place some of the emerging seedlings in six packs (for later transplanting to the garden) and others in decorated milk cartons for Mother's Day.

"Because the kids have seen what a draw these plants are for monarchs, they're eager to grow them at home," says Tom. Mother's Day gift plants go home with information on the plants and their needs, their role in the local ecology, and their connections to monarchs. "This project has brought to life students' appreciation for and understanding of interdependence in the natural world," notes Tom. "It has been a great way to link the beginning and end of the school year and to cultivate connections between school and home," he adds.

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