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Nurturing or noxious?

Neenah homeowner challenges order to cut down milkweed patch

Aug. 30, 2013
 
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Milkweed basics

Milkweed grows 2 to 6 feet high and usually has a single, simple stem. It drips a thick, white sap when cut or broken that makes it look like it’s leaking milk. It blooms from late June to August, and the flowers develop into seed pods in the fall. The pods have a warty outer skin filled with downy fluff that carry seeds on the wind like a parachute.
Did you know that ...
• Sap from milkweed was used by pioneers as a cure for warts.
• The airborne, fluffy parachute of the seed was used by American Indians to insulate moccasins.
• The dried, empty seed pods were used as Christmas tree decorations by early pioneers.
• Wisconsin schoolchildren collected 283,000 bags of milkweed fluff for use in military life jackets during World War II.
• Milkweed is used as an indicator of ground-level ozone air pollution.
Source: Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources

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NEENAH — Homeowner Jennifer Butler thinks milkweed is a beautiful plant that should be nurtured as a nectar source for bees and a food source for monarch butterfly caterpillars.

The patch of milkweed in her backyard at 415 High St. towers 4 to 5 feet high and is alive with bees, butterflies and caterpillars. It’s also under threat.

Earlier this month Neenah code-enforcement officers ordered Butler to cut down her patch of milkweed because it violates an ordinance that classifies milkweed as a noxious weed, similar to ragweed, thistles and poison oak. The ordinance says milkweed must be destroyed if it exceeds 8 inches in height.

Thus far, Butler has refused the city’s order, and the milkweed continues to flourish. She has monarch caterpillars feeding on the leaves.

“I would never have thought there was a rule against milkweed in the city,” Butler said.

City Attorney Jim Godlewski recommended code-enforcement officers cite Butler once a week for noncompliance. A citation carries a fine of $177.

“Technically, we could do it on a daily basis,” Godlewski said. “Under the ordinance, each day is considered a separate violation.”

The city also could cut down the milkweed and bill Butler for the work. “Given the objection of the homeowner, I would advise them to issue the citation first,” Godlewski said.

Butler thinks the city has its priorities wrong. She said it didn’t see fit to personally notify residents affected by a boil-water notice last month but has sent code-enforcement officers to her property multiple times for a patch of milkweed.

“It’s a waste of time and resources coming after people for petty things like that,” she said.

Butler said the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources doesn’t list milkweed a noxious weed and encourages people to plant milkweed as a butterfly garden.

Godlewski said state law allows municipalities to declare certain weeds as noxious, even if the DNR doesn’t. He said milkweed’s inclusion on the list of noxious weeds predates his time as city attorney.

Butler’s milkweed has been growing for the seven years she and her family have lived at the home. It only became an issue after someone filed a complaint with the city.

Neenah has received 157 long grass or weed complaints this year. Gerry Kaiser, public works director, said the complaint against Butler is the only one involving milkweed.

— Duke Behnke: 920-729-6622, ext. 32, or dbehnke@postcrescent.com; on Twitter @DukeBehnke

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