As riders in the Register’s Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa (RAGBRAI) followed the route from “river to river” across Iowa, many tossed small objects into the roadside ditches. They weren’t littering; instead, they were helping to plant common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) seedballs to create breeding and feeding habitat for Monarch butterflies.

The effort was spearheaded by Milkweed Matters and Monarchs in Eastern Iowa, two groups that organize educational programs and advocate for Monarch butterflies and their habitat.

Milkweed Matters was established in 2014 by two Grinnell area activists, Kelly Guilbeau and Carolynn McCormick. This year, the group expanded its work into a RAGBRAI riding team, educational seedball-making workshops, and eight informational booths along the route.

During RAGBRAI, the two organizations led efforts to distribute 46,000 seedballs to RAGBRAI participants. Assisting in the distribution effort were volunteers from Iowa State University Extension staff, Master Gardener groups, Grinnell College student interns, and local conservationists from across Iowa.

Milkweed was planted at the Muscatine Agriculture center to support the Monarch habitat in Muscatine.

This marked the third year of efforts to spread milkweed seed along the RAGBRAI route. The effort began in 2014 with loose seed in packets and continued in 2015 with the first use of seedballs during the Monarchs in Eastern Iowa RAGBRAI Seedball Project, which distributed these to riders passing through Mount Vernon.

During the spring of 2016, 36 events brought together more than 2,000 Iowans to learn about the importance of the Monarch’s habitat and prepare 50,816 milkweed seedballs.

Composed of 50 percent soil and 50 percent clay, each seedball contained two to six common milkweed seeds collected from Iowa roadsides. The volunteers who rolled the seedballs represented a variety of audiences and age groups, from elementary school students, Scout troops, 4-H clubs, Master Gardeners, and nursing home residents to area Grange members, Anamosa State Penitentiary inmates, and members of corporate teams.

Last week, volunteers staffed a booth along the route each day of RAGBRAI, educating riders, team support staff, and locals about the population decline of Monarch butterflies and other pollinators, and giving them the opportunity to help by tossing milkweed seedballs into the public roadside ditches along the biking and support vehicle routes and along portions of the Wabash Trace Nature Trail and Kewash Nature Trail.

“My voice is much more sore than my thighs,” said Elizabeth Hill after riding and speaking with hundreds of riders over the week.

Volunteer Courtney Turnis of Coon Rapids, Iowa, hosted the Milkweed Matters biking team at her family home in Corning and was in charge of the volunteer booth in Mt. Ayr.

“A little boy came to pick up some seedballs and he had the tiniest hands,” Turnis said. “But after I gave him a handful, he told me, ‘I can carry a lot more than that.’” Seedballs are often used to plant wildflowers because the clay medium protects seeds from being eaten by small mammals and supports the cold moist stratification or “overwintering” process that seeds must go through to germinate.

“While some milkweed seeds planted along the RAGBRAI route may germinate this fall, the majority of them will germinate in the spring and grow into plants that Monarchs will lay their eggs on next summer,” said Guilbeau.

Milkweed Matters hopes to continue the momentum of the planting project, and will continue to encourage Iowans to learn about the need for pollinators and their habitat. “We were absolutely thrilled with the response we received during the week,” said Kelly Guilbeau. “There were bikers, longboarders, support vehicle drivers, and town volunteers who stopped each day to pick up more seedballs. It was a powerful display of grassroots crowdplanting.”

Readers can connect with the cause by visiting www.milkweedmatters.org.