From the September/October 2017 issue of Iowa Outdoors magazine
Milkweed Matters began in 2014 when group founder Kelly Guilbeau began throwing loose milkweed seeds along the RAGBRAI route. The following year, seed ball dispersal began with 2,000 thrown during the ride in collaboration with another organization; Monarchs in Eastern Iowa. Last year the number of seed balls jumped to 58,459—made at 79 different events statewide by 3,406 people.
During RAGBRAI 2017, Guilbeau says 5,000 to 7,000 seed balls were handed out to riders daily. “It’s making a large and sustainable impact, and to continue that every year makes a lot of sense,” Guilbeau says.
Milkweed seed is too light to throw. The seed ball helps it go further, protects seeds from blowing away, and aids in dispersal for hard-to-reach areas.
The seed balls lay out all winter (seeds need exposure to cold to become viable) and when spring rains come, they break down to grow.
Milkweed Matters received a mini REAP grant to further their efforts and educate people about milkweed’s link to monarch butterflies. A hurdle in restoring milkweed is people’s perception, says Guilbeau.
Milkweed is not a weed. It is the only food source for monarch caterpillars. And the plant has declined recently by 80 percent nationally.
“I’d say 85 to 90 percent of riders we talked to during RAGBRAI don’t know milkweed is the only host plant for the monarch,” says Guilbeau.
Roadside mowing and spraying also challenge milkweed. Sustainable roadside management is necessary.
During the ride, cyclists are instructed to throw them in un-mowed, un-sprayed ditches.
That’s not easy. Last year, some riders reported no suitable areas during a day’s ride.
Milkweed Matters receives seeds donated from volunteer’s backyards or roadsides. About 200,000 seeds are needed per year. “This is a pretty low budget project that relies on the help of others,” says Guilbeau.
Visit milkweedmatters.org or facebook.com/milkweedmatters for more details.
Help Struggling Monarch Populations With DIY Seed Balls
Make your own seed balls this fall when milkweed seedpods are ready. Disperse them in the autumn while biking, walking or even horseback riding. Seventeen milkweed species are native to Iowa—all provide food for monarch caterpillars. If collecting your own, leave at least 10 percent to spread naturally.
Loose milkweed seed is too lightweight to go where directed. The weight of the seed ball aids throwing, especially for hard-to-reach-areas, and keeps seeds from blowing away.
Seed balls lay out all winter (seeds need exposure to cold to become viable) and when the snow starts melting, the seed ball breaks apart for spring growth.
Milkweed sap is an eye irritant, so wash your hands after contacting sap.
Local clay and soil
Milkweed seeds separated from fluff
Bucket (a 5-gallon bucket yields about 1,000 seed balls)
Newspapers or tarp for covering surfaces
Trowel for mixing (optional)
Step 1: Make Your Mixture
With hands, mix one part soil to one part clay and add water to reach cookie dough or Play-Doh consistency.
Step 2: Begin Rolling
Grab a small chunk and roll to the size of a cherry tomato. Poke a hole in the ball and place four seeds inside. Reroll to cover the seeds.
Step 3: Let Dry
Place freshly rolled balls in a single layer on trays for at least 48 hours until hardened through.
Step 4: Throw!
Throw or place seed balls late summer and fall. They must be outside over winter (the seeds need exposure to cold) to grow in the spring.
For more ideas, visit our In Your Own Backyard and Iowa Wildlife boards on Pinterest.