The monarch butterfly is back in the news again. The Center for Biodiversity is petitioning the federal government to declare the monarch butterfly an endangered species.  An estimated 90% of the species has been lost over the past two decades.

          Why?  The monarch's migration is unique to this continent.  One small, fragile bug joins millions of others every fall to travel back from the northern area of North America to their overwintering grounds in the mountains of central Mexico.  That covers a vast amount of land! Then again in the spring, this same butterfly heads north, as far as Texas, to lay the first generation of eggs before dying.  Milkweed is the host plant of the monarch butterfly. This is a critical point.  Different butterflies lay their eggs on specific families of plants.  It is the ONLY plant they will lay eggs on, and the only plant the caterpillars will eat.  For the monarch butterfly, the host plant is Milkweed.

          Thus, milkweed in abundance is a necessity for the survival of monarch butterflies. There are over 100 different types of Asclepius or milkweed.  Different types grown in different climate zones of the continent.  It's important to know what native species grows in your area.  Over the past two decades a number of factors have contributed to wiping out the breeding grounds of the monarch.

  1. Urban sprawl.  Open, weedy fields, especially across the Midwest, have been paved over for development.  Estimated loss of summer breeding ground is the size of Texas.
  2. Genetically modified plants kill adjacent "weedy" plants.  These so called "weeds" include milkweed.
  3. In Mexico, continued illegal plundering of the oyamel forests in the monarch sanctuaries are destroying habitat.  Doing this is like punching holes in the delicate microclimate in the mountains where the monarchs overwinter.  Recent storms killed countless monarchs.
  4. Along the barrier island coast, residents cut back the shrubs (groundsel, sea myrtle) for a better view. The migrating monarchs depend on these shrubs as they journey south.

           If you're like me, when you read facts like this, your heart aches and you want to know what you can do to help.  Allow me to make a few suggestions of things we can all do in our own back yard to make a difference.

             In a nutshell, remember this:  SPRING  Plant host Milkweed!  FALL  Plant nectar flowers!

            1.  Plant milkweed.  That's the number one thing you can do.  It's an easy plant to grow, needs full sunlight and that's about it.  The spring and summer is when the monarchs are laying eggs and increasing the population.  In the fall, the migrating monarch goes into diapause, does not mate, and uses its energy to journey south to Mexico.

·       seeds  You can buy seeds on line and plant them in the spring or fall.  In the fall, pods form on the milkweed. They're just beginning now so it's a good time to harvest and collect seeds.  I sprinkle them on tilled soil now and let nature take its course!

·       milkweed plants  You can buy milkweed as plants at many local nurseries now, as well as online.  Here's what is important to ask: Has the milkweed been sprayed with pesticides?  If it has, the plant will kill your caterpillars! If the nursery doesn't know, it probably has been sprayed.  I wash mine thoroughly in the spring and let it sit out of the garden in pots for a month before planting it. And I try to only buy milkweed from an organic source.  Once you have your milkweed patch established in your garden, the plant should survive and seed additional plants.

·       resources for plants and monarchs:

     a.  Bring Back the Monarch  http://monarchwatch.org/bring-back-the-monarchs/resources/plant-seed-suppliers

     b.  Live Monarch: I love this site. Great for getting seeds, plants, supplies!  http://www.livemonarch.com/free-milkweed-seeds.htm 

      c.  Learner.org   A major source of information  for butterfly lovers. Great reports on monarch migration. http://www.learner.org/jnorth/tm/monarch/indexCurrent.html

·       The three rules for all milkweed: 1. DO NOT EAT  2.DO NOT GET SAP ON SKIN OR IN EYES. 3. EDUCATE AND PROTECT OTHERS FROM #1 & 2.

I hate it when milkweed is referred to as a "weed."  I find it quite pretty!  I plant milkweed directly in my "nectar" show garden.  See how pretty it looks? Which is the milkweed?

 I have a "rear" garden for host plants that can look raggedy after the caterpillars chew it up.  But that's what its there for! I refer to this patch as my "host" garden.  In the early summer I tossed in a few tomatoes, too.  There is milkweed, passion vine (for the Gulf Fritillary) dill, fennel and parsley (for the swallowtails) rue and paw paw.
           In my zone I grow turberosa and curassavica "tropical" milkweed.  There is a debate as to whether the tropical milkweed, a non-native, is interfering with the monarch migration by providing a milkweed source for butterflies that, simply put, tricks them to staying and breeding rather than moving south.  I have also heard from local butterfly experts that late travelers stay in our region through the winter in SC and Florida where the weather is mild and nectar sources abundant.

          I strongly support the planting of native species of milkweed.  Here is an informative article to read to help you make your own decision.

            In my area, a barrier island, however, we are having difficulty finding suppliers of native milkweed.  Frankly, if I lived in the Midwest I'd plant only native species that would die down naturally in the fall.  Here on Isle of Palms, tropical milkweed grows abundantly and I've decided to continue planting it to increase the species. I also cut it back in the winter.

             2.  Plant Nectar plants.  Nectar is the food of butterflies.  They need nectar during the breeding season and the really need it now, as they migrate south.  This one brave butterfly that travels thousands of miles must reach the sanctuary in Mexico having gained weight! Yes, gained enough weight to survive the winter months.
           My garden looks sparse by September, just when the monarchs are racing through searching for food.  Over the past few years I've planted only those flowers that I know will still be in bloom in the fall.  My favorites here include: penta, coneflower, Joe pyeweed, buddleia, sedum, Mexican petunia.  Even still, I'm going to the garden center this week to buy some "fall stock" for the garden. I'm pumping up the supply for migrating butterflies and boosting the garden's appearance as well.  Learn what plants butterflies prefer in your area, especially those that continue blooming through the fall.

            3.  Don't spray pesticides in your garden!  If it kills spiders, ants, etc it will also kill caterpillars!  I oppose aerial mosquito spraying, especially during the migrating season. Be aggressive in your own back yard to not let standing water stay in your birdbaths, planters, etc.  Try some of the fabulous mosquito "zappers" that use lure to draw the varmints in. There are alternatives to spraying with pesticides.  Your flower/milkweed garden should be a "no spray" zone.

            4.  Urge your local politicians to support the petition to put monarchs on the endangered species list.

              5.  Raise Monarchs   Finally, if you are really interested, and you want to share your passion with your children, try raising monarchs!  If I can do it, so can you! 
          It's not hard, but it does require daily diligence AND a big supply of milkweed--estimated one plant per caterpillar.  I wrote a children's book-- A BUTTERFLY CALLED HOPE with gorgeous photographs by Barbara Bergwerf to help you see what you should do to raise monarchs.  I find actually "seeing" the process is both educational and a relief. For more detailed information (which you will want) I highly recommend getting MY MONARCH JOURNAL by Connie Muther.  Also online, go to www.monarchwatch.com  for an excellent resource on rearing monarchs and all things monarch.

          Currently in my "nursery" I have 60 caterpillars chomping away! I have a number of swallowtails too.  I'm spending long hours every day alone in my office, finishing a novel. It's exhausting work.  Many times a day I take a break to go downstairs to the garden, with Buster and Maggie trotting faithfully behind me, to check on the nursery.  I replenish food supply then go out to the milkweed to scout for eggs.  I find some every day! This brief connection to nature nourishes my creative self.  I feel an "ahhh" outdoors with the butterflies that is instant gratification in my own back yard.  After my break I go back upstairs to work once more on my novel, my batteries recharged.

          The nursery will continue to grow as more eggs hatch into caterpillars.  I can only raise as many as I have milkweed to feed them.  When the milkweed is gone I must let nature take its course.  But next spring I will plant still more milkweed, and more the following year and share seeds with friends so they will plant milkweed, too. 

                                           If you plant it--they will come!

1 comment:

  1. Thanks Mary Alice. I will definitely incorporate this into a lesson at the K-5 grade levels. This is a great project to incorporate research, social studies, science and other curriculum areas. I look forward to sharing our progress in the media center. Good luck in your efforts to "spread the word".


Thanks for visiting my blog and sharing your thoughts. Learn more about my books on Facebook and my website www.maryalicemonroe.com.

All the best,
Mary Alice