Buckwheat and the Butterfly

Article courtesy: The National Gardener, Spring 2020 Issue

A phenomenon occurred in September, 2019, in the farm fields of Treaty, Indiana, a community situated between the cities of Marion and Wabash in Wabash County. The extraordinary chain of events, seemingly unrelated, had the potential to save the lives of hundreds of thousands of monarch butterflies that migrated through Indiana during this time.

A number of factors came into play. A farmer in Wabash planted 160 acres of buckwheat in July as a cover crop, because crops such as corn or wheat, or many other standard crops typically planted in Indiana, could not be planted last year due to an unusually wet summer and inaccessibility to overly saturated fields during prime planting time. Area farmers concluded there were few options available in which to plant cash crops.

One acre of land is equivalent in size to one football field – which provides readers with an idea on the immense scope of the planted buckwheat – and even though the planting was not necessarily done in one large area, the farmer planted buckwheat over several adjacent plats of land, some divided by country roads.

For those unfamiliar with buckwheat, it is a seed plant, not a grain. It grows quickly and offers a number of benefits:

  • It deters pests and is not susceptible to any major diseases.
  • It is a magnet for bees and butterflies.
  • It makes great fodder for cattle and other livestock.
  • As a cover crop, it works like “green manure” to enrich the soil, if plowed under before it flowers.
  • Buckwheat can grow in poor soil, decomposes easily and the seed is relatively inexpensive to plant.
  • When buckwheat seed is harvested and ground, it makes gluten-free flour for tasty, high-protein pancakes.
  • When bees make honey from the single source buckwheat flowers, the honey is dark, very rich and flavorful.
  • Another form of buckwheat is “groats” or kasha, which works as a high-protein substitute for rice, barley or other grains in soups or salads.

In conjunction with the planting of buckwheat in Treaty, our neighbor to the north had been experiencing an unusually warm summer. Third-generation monarch butterflies in Canada had not yet begun to migrate toward Texas and Mexico. The monarchs got off to a late start at the beginning of September, crossed the Great Lakes, and their route was through territory that did not typically offer ample food reserves. In Indiana, not the normal route of the major monarch migration, annuals and perennials were at the end of their growing season, but “species plants,” such as weeds, would provide some nourishment. Monarchs rely on large supplies of rich nectar in this annual migration to their winter destination in the south. They also require the same levels of nourishment to fuel their trek back north in late spring, as well as to deposit the next year’s generation of eggs.

Right time, right plant, right place

In early September, a series of unprecedented events, sparked by critical timing, took place in the fields of buckwheat. Area residents began to notice fields of white flowers in bloom, which beckoned to the hungry monarchs, and they were highly visible perched in the white pine, maple and oak trees adjacent to the fields. One neighbor, in particular, who lived on his property since 1938, reported that the old, stately maple tree in his backyard was completely covered in monarchs each morning. Pear trees, oaks and pines nearby accommodated more butterflies. Colorful, fluttering wings could be seen throughout each day. The “festival” of butterflies was reported in the local newspaper.

Each morning, monarchs would arrive, get nourishment, rest and finally take to the skies heading southwest. And, each day, more butterflies would come from the north to take their place to harvest nectar from the prolific white blooms of buckwheat. Of particular note: typically, if buckwheat were a standard crop for the area, the plants would have been blooming in early June, not September. But, due to the area’s unusual weather pattern, which impacted the regular crop-growing season, buckwheat was planted and planted late. The plants flourished – some reaching as high as 24 inches – and offered a heavy production of blooms and nectar.

For three weeks, hundreds of thousands of monarchs fed on buckwheat in those 160 acres, gathering energy to continue their flight toward the warm climates of Texas and Mexico.

The ‘Monarch Mamas’

The “Monarch Mamas” team of the Garden Club of Marion presented a tagged butterfly release in Wabash earlier in the summer. Organized six years ago, team members make it their mission to find and raise butterfly eggs throughout each summer, as well as provide monarch education to people in communities and organizations throughout the state. The team released 586 monarchs in 2019. In years past, the team sometimes released more than 2,000 monarchs in one year. In the audience at the Wabash release event was the observant neighbor of the farmer who had planted buckwheat. The team was thrilled at the neighbor’s invitation to see the spectacle of the monarchs at his home and at the adjacent farm fields.

Another generation of monarchs has been aided by one farmer, one particular crop of late buckwheat, an observant neighbor, the educational goals of a garden club’s dedicated “Monarch Mamas,” and the events that aligned to bring these elements together.

While we won’t know the final fate for the many butterflies in that migration, at least in Treaty, Indiana, those butterflies reaffirmed hearts, amazed new minds, brought awareness and provided renewed energy to continue the fight for monarchs and the environment.

Ruth Moorhead
Chairman, Horticulture
The Garden Club of Indiana Inc.

Photos by Tom Bell