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Oklahoma City Zoo works to protect rare species of milkweed vital to monarch butterflies

OKC Zoo team member cover purple milkweed with mesh bag to collect a small portion of seeds available.
Oklahoma City Zoo
OKC Zoo team member cover purple milkweed with mesh bag to collect a small portion of seeds available.

The Oklahoma City Zoo has created a program to protect rare milkweed populations in Oklahoma, which are vital to the endangered monarch butterflies and other pollinators.

The Zoo’s postdoctoral fellow in conservation and science, Emily Geest, said in a recent blog post more than twenty species of milkweed grow in Oklahoma, mostly in the Black Mesa and South-Central Plains ecoregions.

One species in southeast Oklahoma called purple milkweed (Asclepias purpurascens) is considered critically imperiled at the state level through NatureServe, a national biodiversity database.

To help boost the plant’s populations, the OKC Zoo is embarking on a project where researchers are collecting milkweed at an immature stage then reintroducing it back to the wild at a later stage of development.

Geets said initial trips began in spring of 2023 to search for rare milkweed species using the last known locations and historic data. Four species of conservation interest were located in May and some of their seeds were collected.

The team of researches just got back from a trip in August, where they successfully collected more seeds of purple milkweed and others. The seeds will be germinated and reared in a greenhouse at the Zoo. In Spring 2024, seedlings will be planted in secure locations and monitored.

On Sept. 16, the OKC Zoo is hosting a Monarch Awareness Day open to the public.

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Britny Cordera was StateImpact Oklahoma's environment and science reporter from July 2023 to April 2024.
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