“Do Deer Like Milkweed”?
This is a query received from a Weedpatch reader named Patti S. I LOVE questions from readers because finding answers is my way of avoiding working on any essential tasks (like earning money or calling the health insurance company). Very oddly, the question reminded me that I had recently bought a used book, The Hidden Life of Deer, by naturalist/anthropologist, Elizabeth Marshall Thomas, but had not yet read it. So, now’s the time, right? Honest to God, I randomly opened the book to page 186 and immediately saw the word, “Monarch”. Could I really have an answer so quickly? Well, no, but I did read four riveting pages of Thomas’ observations of a Monarch caterpillar on a Milkweed leaf. Which left me with the question, “Do caterpillars shit only on leaves they don’t nibble”?
But I digress. Next, I googled. Whereupon I came upon a lot of other people looking to answer the same question, but also found my new favorite website, homesteadingtoday.com, which appears to be about as blue state/red state in its opinions as Americans can be. There I read comments claiming that Milkweed is “a noxious weed, just like kudzu” and how best to eradicate it with 2-4D but followed by polite suggestions from obvious blue staters like, “couldn’t you leave just a little bit for the butterflies?”. I also read how Grandpa considered Milkweed to be his cash crop during WWII cuz he sold the waterproof and buoyant floss for stuffing in life jackets and flight suits (methinks Grandpa did not get rich but this CSM article about its WWII uses is REALLY interesting). Then I read that Milkweed “never bothered the cattle”. And that Milkweed should be planted by the front door because it draws bees but the bees “keep the door knockers away”. The same commentator, “Alleyyooper”, answered Patti’s question this way: “Deer like it like a horse eats oats”. H’mmm…
But methinks that Alleyyooper is wrong about the grazing deer. “Milkweed” is MILKweed for a reason (actually, let’s rename it “Silkweed”, much more attractive name). Milkweed refers to its “white juice, which is a kind of rubber”. (Recall that Thomas Edison tried to use it to replace rubber in making car tires. True.). Here’s more from a 1911 book, Handbook of Nature Study, (buy it!) recommended to me by botanist Jerry Wilhelm:
“The most striking peculiarity of the milkweed plant is its white juice. Let a drop of it dry on the back of the hand, and when we try to remove it we find it quite elastic and possessed of all the qualities of crude rubber. We can see that the hollow of the center of the stem has around it a dark green ring, and that outside this is a light green ring. It is from the dark green ring that the milk exudes. The juice will soon fill and heal the wound we made. This milk is not the sap of the pine; it is a special secretion, and is very acrid to the taste. Milkweed is seldom eaten by grazing animals…”.
I tested the Milkweed myself, including trying to sniff for its “strong odor” which I thought might deter the deer. I couldn’t smell any odor, although I thought I detected a soft vanilla scent. Deer cookies? Anyhoo, this is what I think. If you were a deer grazing in a salad bowl of vegetation, you might bite off a Milkweed occasionally, but if you got a mouthful of white sticky latex on your tongue every time you would definitely prefer to eat something else. Like a hosta. So, dear Patti, plant the milkweed and watch to see what the deer do to it. Get back to us, okay?
And to alleyyooper–if a horse eats too many oats, a horse gets sick. Same with Milkweed and deer. Please plant milkweed. Make a butterfly come alive.##