What is it about the Monarch butterfly that inspires such admiration? Is it their striking orange and black coloring? The polka-dotted black wing band? The elegant, upward sweep of their wing structure, so symbolic of their royal name? Or is it the utterly incredible feat of their multi-generational migration that can span of thousands of miles and three continents that makes people know and love this butterfly like no other?
The Monarch has been in the news frequently of late, and not with good tidings. Monarch populations have been on a long term decline now for many years. The number of Monarch butterflies making it to their winter refuge in Mexico dropped 59 percent this year, falling to the lowest level since comparable record-keeping began 20 years ago, according to an article in the Washington Post. There are now only one-fifteenth as many Monarchs now as there were in 1997. Experts have called the recent numbers “ominous.”
Mexico has made an effort to preserve the few, and small, forest areas where the butterflies over-winter, but a problem has arisen with the lack of milkweed, a plant the butterfly depends on to complete its life cycle. Habitat loss due to development and the widespread use of chemicals on crops and roadsides has seriously reduced the numbers of these critical plants, with negative consequences for the butterflies.
The connection between milkweed and monarch has become widely known recently. Many people are now aware that although adult Monarch butterflies can nectar on any number of flowers, their offspring, emerging as caterpillars, must eat the leaves of milkweed and only milkweed to reach the next stage of growth and undergo the miraculous metamorphosis that allows an adult Monarch butterfly to come into existence.
What has all this got to do with us? Quite simply, it gives us an opportunity to be a part of a solution.
The 3-D film, Flight of the Butterflies, released this year, does a beautiful job of explaining the Monarch’s life cycle, its migration path, and the story of how scientists discovered the secrets behind Monarch migration. Towards the end of the film, a third-generation Monarch is heading south and looking desperately for a place to lay her eggs. She must find a milkweed plant or the next generation will be born into starvation. As she flies over acres of fields of chemically-treated corn she finds no milkweed to land upon, and begins to sink down to the ground, her life nearly over, her mission incomplete. But suddenly, on the horizon, a sub divsion of houses appears. At this point, I must admit to a sentimental collapse….could it be? Was there going to be milkweed in one of those backyards? YES! There it was, one of those yards stood out from the sterile boxes of evergreen yews that surrounded it. In that sweet flowery haven, the butterfly landed on a milkweed, and I cried.
That’s reasonable, right? I have spent the past 13 years preaching this message to everyone who will stand still long enough to hear it, not to mention those who were within earshot and simply couldn’t get away: Native plants make a difference. And there I was in the Smithsonian museum, my mission being validated by the best science, the most creative artists, and the most passionate, forward-thinking people there are. I’m practically crying just remembering it!
Getting back to the subject. The butterfly laid her eggs, ensuring the next generation would make it to Mexico and carry the cycle forward. Which also gets us back to the current situation with milkweed. We can make a difference, we must make a difference. There are so many things we either have no power to change, or very little power to change; but if enough people choose native plants in their yards and their community spaces, we can provide enough biodiversity to preserve many things which are currently endangered, including Monarch butterflies.
To help save the Monarchs the spotlight turns now to understanding milkweeds. What do you picture in your mind when you think of one? There are over 100 species of milkweed and many common names are used in association with them. These common names are not consistent from place to place and are frequently shared with plants that are not milkweeds at all. It’s no wonder there is a certain amount of confusion about what to put in the garden!
Milkweeds Native to your Region
- The most important thing you can do is to plant the milkweeds that are local ecotypes, the ones native your own region. Here are two good resources to help you find out what those are.
Milkweeds all carry the name ‘Asclepias’ in front, named for the Greek god of healing and medicine; and their medicinal qualities were well known to indigenous peoples. They are classified as belonging in the Dogbane family, Apocynaceae. Milkweeds are a fascinating bunch with a wide range of characteristics. Certainly we we haven’t got time to look at them all, but the following are among the ones most frequently encountered, and knowing about them will give you a good beginning for understanding what you are actually looking at when you hear certain names, and then deciding which to include in your garden.
First of all, the one that some call the ‘thug, Asclepius syriaca . The term ‘common milkweed’ refers specifically to this plant. Its flowers range from light green to pink-purple. It appears quickly in disturbed meadows and by roadsides, and grows vigorously from underground rhizomes, making it perhaps the most commonly seen of the milkweeds, hence the label. It also means that if you have a large amount of space it can spread out in, and let it be contained by other plants in competition, great; but it is probably not a good choice in a small home garden.
Armitage, in his Native Plants for North American Gardens, says of A. syriaca that he would never put it in a garden, but “the further you get from the farm, the more the plant grows on you, especially if you stick your nose in the flower.” I love it. The fragrance is wonderful, the flowers are huge, dense, and great pollinator attractors. A robust and beautiful plant. The syriaca has deep tap roots, so it withstands drought, and casual removal, equally well, but not transplanting. If happy it will from large dense colonies. Truly a great plant in the right spot.
Next, Asclepius tuberosa. This milkweed is distinctive for its orange color. It carries the common name of butterfly weed in addition to 14 other names, including Canada root, fluxroot, yellow milkweed, butterfly love, butterfly flower, and Indian posy. It is highly attractive to nectaring butterflies who are drawn to its bright orange to yellowish, nectar-rich flowers. A. tuberosa is perfectly adapted to life in a home garden, staying in place with a long bloom season. Do not confuse this plant with the commonly called “butterfly bush,” which is the buddleia, or buddleia bush. Buddleia bush is native to China, and while its flowers do attract many butterflies, not one single butterfly in North America can use it as a host plant, a plant that will provide food for the emerging caterpillars.
Purple milkweed, Asclepias purpurescens, is another fine candidate for a home garden. The deeply purple flowers bloom in late spring, early summer, borne on one foot stems. Here is a post with lovely photos featuring this beauty, Purple Milkweed.
Finally, Asclepius incarnata, is the one known as swamp milkweed. It has more narrow, pointed leaves than most, and its seed pods mirror that shape. They have a branching structure, with showy red-pink flowers. They prefer moist conditions as you might guess, and can become somewhat decimated by summer’s end. This is another milkweed with many common names; it seems that the more widespread the plant, the more names become attached to it. This milkweed comes highly recommended by many as a garden plant, although in some cases it may colonize and spread. It seems to be a variable characteristic.
A word of caution about using the non-native milkweeds. The non-native Asclepias curassavica, known as Scarlet or Tropical milkweed, is perhaps the milkweed most readily available from the box stores, and has a showy flower. If you live in cold climates where it dies back completely and early in the fall, it may not be a problem, BUT ongoing research is revealing two big problems with it in any other conditions. The presence of Scarlet milkweed increases the incidence of deadly parasite OE, (Ophryocystis elektroscirrha), and it is probably interfering with the Monarch’s fall migratory habits. Read what Lincoln Brower, world-wide expert, has to say here: Non-native Milkweed: Helpful or Harmful?
Planting a variety of milkweeds that are local to your region is the best plan; it gives the biggest bloom display, of course, and also provides food and nectar for the greatest span of needs over the longest time, by the monarchs and other insects who use them. Search your native plant sales this spring for good regional choices. Here is a link replete with more resources for helping the monarch, Gardening for Monarchs, including how to create a monarch way station.
Be a part of the solution, let your yard or community space be the place where that tired Monarch finally lands. Then I won’t have to cry anymore, and neither will you.
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