Nurturing Monarchs

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Showy Milkweed loves dry, sunny places

Resurgence Requires Milkweed

Like bees of all kinds, Monarch butterflies (Danaus plexippus plexippus) are in trouble. As with bees, we gardeners can do a great deal to help, garden by garden. Pollinator gardens filled with local natives and other pollen- and nectar-rich plants are definitely beneficial for all sorts of bees and butterflies. Monarchs will happily visit many of these plants but they have a special relationship with milkweeds, using them as home base for laying their eggs. Milkweeds are also fodder plants for the emerging caterpillars; in fact, milkweeds are the only plants the caterpillars can eat. Thus, if there aren’t enough milkweed plants around when Monarch eggs hatch out, the baby caterpillars die.

Monarch populations have plummeted in recent decades, largely due to GMO corn and other herbicide-resistant crops; when farmers spray fields, milkweeds are killed and Monarchs starve. No breeding habitat, no successful breeding. Other causes also play in, from urban and suburban sprawl and habitat destruction to climate change. No surprise then that Monarch populations are at crisis point in many regions. However, some good news has arrived from Brookings, Oregon, where a few remarkable female Monarchs went on an egg-laying spree this year.

Waystations For Migrations

Both eastern and western Monarch populations have declined; researchers found a loss of over 80% in the east, and over 99% in coastal California. Back in the 80s, an estimated 4.5 million Monarchs migrated from our Western states to Mexico. This January, only 28,429 made the journey through California. If we want to help, the Xerces Society offers excellent of information and several projects to connect with, including protecting and managing vital Monarch habitats through the entire migration pathways. At the simplest level, we can all make Monarchs welcome by encouraging the planting of milkweeds in as many places as possible, both private and public.

If Monarchs are no longer showing up, what’s the point? Planting projects to reestablish native milkweeds can have remarkable results. This summer, several members of the Deschutes Land Trust experienced an astonishing butterfly bonanza in Brookings, Oregon. A number of Land Trust members have learned how to nurture and support Monarchs by creating Waystations for migrating butterflies. These can be as small as a series of modest patches of milkweed and nectar-rich, long blooming flowers, or extensive pollinator gardens, well stocked with milkweeds and a wider variety of nectar and pollen producing plants. (To learn about the training and certification for Waystation making and maintaining, check out this link: .)

A Miracle Of Fecundity

Here’s a little miracle for us: This July, a land trust member observed a female Monarch laying eggs in her pollinator garden, which includes mature milkweed plants. The gardener counted 50 eggs in that initial clutch. She gently tagged the female, who came back to lay another 50 eggs the following day. Though 300-400 eggs are typical for Monarchs, this busy gal kept on coming and eventually deposited a total of 588 eggs. To minimize the usual losses in the wild, the gardener and a friend (also a land trust member) raised the eggs to adults, then tagged and released them.

In early August, the other Land Trust member was tending his Monarch Waystation in Brookings and noted a tagged female monarch laying a batch of eggs. Her tag showed that she was one of the Monarchs he had helped raise and release in July. Throughout the week, a number of other tagged female Monarchs also visited the Waystation, along with some free-range untagged ladies. The gardener has now collected hundreds of eggs and responsibly raised the resulting caterpillars to adulthood. These butterflies will start the journey south by overwintering in California. However, this delightful glut of eggs meant that there would soon be insufficient milkweed to support them all. The call went out and many gardeners rallied with help. In such situations, large containers of cut stems of milkweed plants in water can tide things over, but clearly more Waystations are needed.

Incoming And Ongoing

Another support groups, the Brookings Oregon Monarch Advocates (BOMA) helped with egg raising and the care and feeding of the caterpillars as the precious eggs kept coming. This current generation of caterpillars will become the butterflies that migrate south to overwinter in California. Several other sites in Oregon reported extraordinary egg production as well, and BOMA has enlisted a coalition of support groups, including the Deschutes Land Trust, Southern Oregon Monarch Advocates, and Monarch Advocates of Central Oregon. Now these groups are working together to create more Waystations as well as training programs so more folks can learn to safely raise and release healthy Monarchs.

No one knows why this sudden resurgence is happening in Oregon, or whether it may also happen in other parts of the Pacific Northwest. Since fortune favors the prepared, it certainly seems worthwhile to start creating Waystations wherever we are, as well as learning responsible raising, tagging and release techniques. To get started, find a sunny, open space. Ideally, it’s at least 100 square feet (10 x 10’),; if that’s not possible, consider working with your neighbors, since a series of small pollinator patches can be as effective as a large one. To extend the bloom season, include as many native milkweed species as you can, and aim for about ten plants of each. Most milkweeds will spread a bit, mingling happily with other nectar and pollen producers to make a highly attractive pollinator patch.

Native Milkweeds

So what should we be planting? Native annuals and perennials can be mixed with hardy herbs and ornamentals that are good nectar and pollen sources. As for milkweeds, our four native species include Common Milkweed, Asclepias syriaca, with long, tapering foliage and umbels of pink-to-purple blossoms in early to mid summer. The flowers are small but intricate and offer a sweet, earthy fragrance that reminds me of vanilla beans. This milkweed colonizes readily in disturbed sites, often found along roadsides, ditches and old fields as well as pastures and croplands. Each plant may produce a number of large clones, especially thriving in full sun and lean soils. Like all Western milkweeds, it blooms better in lean, dry soils than rich ones, and does not need or appreciate fertilizer. Its plump, pickle-like seed pods open in mid to late fall, releasing brown seeds hanging from puffy, fluffy clouds of “silk” that blow away on the wind like dandelion seeds.

In some areas, Common Milkweed forms natural hybrids with another Western native, Showy Milkweed (A. speciosa). Showy Milkweed looks similar, but its pinky-purple-to reddish flowers have longer, more tapered petals that are slightly hairy and even more fragrant. Fertilizers can stunt these plants and often retard or inhibit blooming. Benign neglect is best for these deep-rooted plants, which do not transplant well once established but will often spread themselves around moderately, needing only full sun to thrive. Yet another species, Swamp Milkweed (A. incarnata) is a southern native that can stretch head high, producing flatter umbles of small, mauve to pale purple flowers off and on all summer. This one is better suited to richer soils and appreciates more moisture that the Western species, but attracts a wide range of butterflies and bees over its long bloom season. Perhaps the prettiest of all, Butterfly Weed (A. tuberosa) is a compact Southeastern native with vivid yellow-to-orange flowers from early summer to early autumn.

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2 Responses to Nurturing Monarchs

  1. Diane Hooper says:

    Hi Ann,
    I was in Michigan last month and brought home a milkweed pod! I never see them around here and having grown up in Michigan always delighted at the pods when they burst open and the silky seeds started floating around.
    I was surprised to see you mention “tagging” butterflies, now that sounds challenging!
    I know Bainbridge has many “butterfly bushes” which as I understand are noxious weeds? Those are certainly plentiful around here!
    Thanks for the informative newsletter on the Monarchs! Are the yellow and black butterflies also Monarchs?

    • Ann Lovejoy says:

      Hi Diane,
      Yes, “Butterfly Bush” or Buddleia davidii is indeed a noxious weed for a number of reasons. Happily, there are lots of other buddleias that are not problem plants, as well as plenty of other shrubs and perennials that will nurture butterflies without harm.
      Also, yes, tagging butterflies takes a sure hand and a delicate touch but it helps Monarch trackers figure out where released butterflies came from, and it’s especially useful for seeing where they are returning after years of non-appearance. So exciting!
      Milkweed seeds are a little tricky to germinate, so starting with plants is a good way to go. Ask your favorite local nursery to order some in the spring if you are interested in growing them yourself. Like you, I loved them as a child and still get a kick from seeing those fluffy little parachutes fly away.

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