There is nothing as graceful as a monarch butterfly sailing with strong wing strokes over the garden wall, and few moments as enjoyable as when that butterfly stays to visit, floating from flower to flower.
The spectacle of monarchs crossing the Midwest by the millions every Fall on their way to their winter roost in Mexico is among the little miracles of nature that mark the turn of the seasons for Chicago-area residents. We still don’t understand the mechanism by which these creatures find their way back; those returning are often as many as four generations away from those that returned the previous year!
Yet this legendary migration is under threat, with 2013 butterfly counts the lowest they’ve ever been and scientists warning that the migration will soon come to an end if the trend continues. Adult monarchs need lots of nectar to fuel their migration, and butterfly-loving gardeners often plant nectar-heavy flowers to attract them. But equally essential to the monarch’s survival are the plants they lay their eggs on—the only plants their caterpillars are able to eat: the milkweeds. To really support the monarch, plant its food plants and don’t be upset about a bit of leaf damage—the sign of happily growing baby monarchs! Their nibbles rarely harm these perennial plants.
There are many species of milkweed, and some are exceptionally beautiful. They grow to various heights and feature flowers that range across species from pink to purple to white to yellow to orange. There is a milkweed to complement every garden. All milkweeds fit in gardens with other native plants, but many can also work in the traditional border or cottage garden.
Each milkweed has its preferred ecological niche. The intensely fire-orange, short-statured butterfly milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa), for example, prefers well-drained soil. Many of us know the pink-blossomed common milkweed (A. syriaca) from the empty lots and open fields of our childhoods. It is tall, spreads easily, and is quite happy in a range of conditions. Sullivant’s milkweed, A. sullivantii, resembles common milkweed but does not spread. A. incarnata, AKA rose, red, or swamp milkweed, is a pretty, dark pink milkweed that doesn’t mind clay and periods of inundation. The white A. verticillata stays under two feet and can tolerate poor, gravelly soil. The intensely colored purple milkweed, A. purpurascens, is fine with part shade, favoring the woodland edge. There are several other gorgeous milkweeds native to our area: a milkweed to fit every garden!
Learning which species are suited to your conditions can help you incorporate these important native plants into a garden that will host the entire lifecycle of the regal monarch. It takes a monarch less than a month to go from egg to adult, and in the northern summer our gardens can support as many as four generations before migration begins in the Fall.
It has become essential, if our children are to enjoy these beautiful creatures, that city and suburban areas host healthy stands of milkweed. Monarch habitat is under siege. Developed complexes of sterile lawns have taken over much of its habitat; farmland is now planted with Roundup-ready crops that are heavily sprayed with herbicide, preventing wildflowers such as milkweeds from growing between the rows and along roadsides; and woodlands and prairies with the full complement of native plants are now extremely rare. At the southern end of the monarch’s migration, in Mexico, illegal logging continues to erode habitat.
More and more, it is up to gardeners to provide the native plants that many of our butterflies require. For the monarch, it’s the milkweed. Plant some in your garden, or consult a native plant nursery or landscaper to choose the right combination of plantings for your soil, light, and moisture conditions.
Fun facts about monarch butterflies
They can fly for 11 hours before having to rest
The milkweeds they eat as larvae impart a nasty-tasting toxin to the adults’ bodies that make birds avoid them
Their distinctive orange and black coloring is mimicked by the viceroy butterfly, helping to protect it from birds that might mistake it for a monarch
You can document your milkweed planting and be recognized as an official monarch waystation. Go to Monarch Waystations at http://www.monarchwatch.org/waystations/http://www.monarchwatch.org/waystations/
Monarch caterpillar image used with permission from the North Carolina Botanical Gardens