Normally, I would pull the stuff up and heave it on the nearest compost pile. After all, I am jealous of rich soil, water and garden space on behalf of the vegetables, herbs and flowers I plant there, but the milkweed and mustard in question planted itself in the front yard and in the disturbed soil of a new septic system.
I don’t keep a mowed front yard in any event; a few feet of grass before the porch and around a venerable apple tree are all that see the mower, together with a dooryard outside the kitchen. I might have scythed the top and sides of the septic field, but I was too preoccupied with the weeds that appeared inside the fences around the two vegetable gardens.
The front yard is, therefore, packed with milkweed and lupines, blackberries and goldenrod. The septic field is slathered over with glorious mustard in full bloom, plus dock, ragweed and oddly, volunteer lettuce plants, which, I suspect, sprouted up from kitchen floor sweepings that I repatriated after a grand seed sort this spring.
My reward for sparing their weedy lives is that the milkweed welcomes butterflies, including Monarchs, and the mustard creates a divine golden light outside the kitchen window and hosts bees. Both smell heavenly.
From my front porch, I can see swallowtail butterflies and others swooping round. In a good year, the Monarch’s caterpillars come creeping out of the milkweed patch and attach themselves to the lower edge of house clapboards, the underside of rocking chair arms, bits of protruding molding, and turn into green chrysalises flecked with gold. One remarkable, and unique, year about six or seven years ago, I counted 150 of them on or under the porch.
I am not the only soul on island to leave milkweed patches for the butterflies to visit. There are quite a few now here on Islesboro, enough so that if we drive with our windows open when they are in bloom, we can catch a whiff of the blossoms’ fragrance. As the season wears on, the milkweed pods ripen and clouds of fluff-borne seed float by, some inevitably into cultivated ground, where they plant themselves next to dandelions. Charming.
The mustard came from I know not where. There was a lot of it this summer, and since it is the kind of plant that sets flowers continuously above ripening seed pods, the yellow display went on for weeks. Most of the plants were taller than me. From time to time I stood in their midst, breathing in the sweetness, surrounded by golden light, and marveling at the number of honeybees and bumblebees both feeding on the blossoms.
The butterflies delight, and the bees leave me unbearably grateful for their pollinating, on which I, and all the rest of humanity, rely for honey, and most importantly, fruit and vegetable productivity.
As it turns out both milkweed and mustard are also edible. So much disagreement among foragers about when to harvest milkweed, and how much it should be cooked and all, leaves me chary of experimentation. Someone once told me it tasted like asparagus, but milkweed is young when the asparagus is at its productive, so I prefer merely to eat asparagus.
Not so the mustard; the blossoms are pretty in a salad, and when chewed, suddenly pop with a strong, distinctly mustard flavor. I’m watching the seed pods develop and hope to gather up some to use in cooking.
With most of life, if I leave things to fend for themselves a mess results. With these two weeds, I was rewarded for my neglect.
Sandy Oliver lives, cooks, gardens and writes on Islesboro.