It happens every year right about this time. As winter comes to an end and the days get warmer and longer, the monarch butterflies begin to head north, looking for milkweed plants on which to lay their eggs before they die. As spring continues, the eggs will hatch, and eventually the caterpillars will metamorphose into the beautiful orange and black adults. These offspring will recolonize their parents’ original homes, and they’ll produce another generation of summer butterflies.
While the migrating monarchs will live for up to nine months, their offspring will only live a few weeks. Over summer, there will be three or four generations of monarchs repopulating the country. At the end of summer, the cycle starts all over again, as the last generation heads south for the cooler months.
Sadly, this year, the winter population is at an all-time low. Still, residents of the southern states are already seeing the return of the monarchs. Part of the problem is the reduction of their winter habitat, other factors include loss of habitat areas and available food sources over spring and summer. Nectaring plants, milkweed, water and oyamel trees in Mexico are vital to the monarch’s survival.
If you live on a migratory path, or in an area where monarchs spend their spring and summer, you can help create a healthy generation and contribute to the survival of the king of butterflies. The simplest thing you can do is cultivate milkweed in your yard. Monarchs will only lay their eggs on milkweed, and it’s the only plant the caterpillars can eat. Common milkweed (asclepieas syriaca) is suited only to large spaces where there is room for it to sprawl, but swamp milkweed (asclepias incarnate) is smaller, and despite its name doesn’t require wet conditions. It’s also suited to large containers and smaller gardens. Tropical milkweed (asclepias curassavica) is another choice that can be grown as an annual in cold-winter climates and is easily grown from seeds. Butterfly weed (asclepias tubersosa) features bright orange flowers, just be aware that it does not do well in clay soils. There are several varieties of milkweed, just be sure you plant ones from the asclepias genus as others may attract butterflies to lay their eggs, but the caterpillars that feed on them will fail to develop.
Yes, if you attract butterflies, the caterpillars will eat the plants right down to the stem, and sometimes right down to the ground. In addition to milkweed, plant some nectar-producers like black eyed Susan, Mexican sunflower, Indian blanket, borage, purple coneflower, scarlet sage, cosmos, zinnias and butterfly bush. It goes without saying that you should avoid any pesticides during butterfly season. If you have neighbors who spray, try planting tall shrubs, trees, or grasses to help prevent pesticide drift onto your plants. Monarchs generally prefer red, orange, yellow or purple, nectar-rich flowers in sunny areas. Having an adjacent area with trees or bushes to help shelter the butterflies from wind and rain is a bonus.
Why not become a certified monarch way station? Find a sunny spot in your yard that gets at least 6 hours of sunlight each day and add several milkweed plants and a mix of nectar-producing plants. There are currently over 6,000 certified Monarch Way Stations!