Monarch butterflies need our help! These amazing butterflies make an epic multigenerational migration, traveling over 3,000 miles from North America to the mountain tops of the Oyamel fir forests of Mexico. The North American monarch population has declined by 90% over the last two decades.
Their populations are seriously imperiled for a number of reasons including the loss of crucial milkweed habitat caused primarily by modern agricultural practices. The increased use of glyphosate-based herbicides on genetically modified crops has resulted in major loss of milkweed. Much of America’s short-and long prairie grasslands, which provided monarchs with milkweed and nectaring habitat, have been converted to farmland. Other causes include illegal logging practices in Mexico, wildfires, and drought. Monarchs are sensitive to climate change, loss of habitat as well as weather fluctuation.
The monarch and its milkweeds have evolved together for hundreds of years. The monarch butterflies lay their eggs on the milkweed foliage since it is the only food source on which the monarch caterpillars can feed. Chemicals in the milkweed plant, cardiac glycosides, eaten by the caterpillars stays in the bodies through metamorphosis. This protects the butterflies by making them poisonous to many predators. Butterflies then get their nectar from the flowers of milkweed and other nectar producing plants.
We can help the monarchs by offering them food, drink, a place to rest, and a milkweed patch where they can lay their eggs. They like puddles where they can drink water and extract minerals from moist areas of the ground. Soil and sand can be put in a pan with water as a way to create a puddle. For resting, flat stones provide places for monarchs to bask in the sun. Most importantly, we can plant milkweeds. Here are my top five milkweeds to plant:
aquatic milkweed (Asclepias perennis)
A beautiful plant with pinkish white flowers. It must have wet, moist soil in partial sun to medium shade. Plants grow 1-2 feet tall.
swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata)
Lovely vibrant pink-purple flowers, likes to grow in wet soils in full sun to partial shade, gets 4-6 feet tall.
butterfly milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa)
A gorgeous orange-flowered perennial. Prefers full sun and can grow in poor soils and tolerates drought. Grows 2-3 feet tall.
showy milkweed (Asclepias speciosa)
Easily grown from seed, the blue-green leaves have a velvety texture. Plants are more vigorous in moist soils. Flowers are a lovely rose color with a long bloom period. Grows 2-5 feet tall.
purple milkweed (Asclepias purpurascens)
Good in dry soil, in a naturalized garden. Flowers are pink to purple, plants grow 2-3 feet tall.
Note: When you buy plants at a garden center make sure that the plants have not been sprayed with systemic pesticides such as neonicotinoides as these would make the plants toxic to monarch larvae.
There are many great organizations dedicated to saving the monarchs. For more information go to:
Creating a garden that includes milkweeds will provide multiple benefits and insure plentiful butterflies and other pollinators. The result is a more dynamic garden that is full of pleasant surprises.