Do you want to have monarch butterflies in your garden? A few readers have emailed or called to ask what to plant. We all love to see butterflies visit our gardens and wild places, but it is important to have the necessary plants with which they are attracted.
Monarchs are butterflies that actually live longer than most but it is the last generation born in summer that travels to Mexico for the winter. They need milkweed and other food sources all along the way. With mowing and herbicide use along highways, milkweeds and nectar sources are declining. Fields and forest are giving way to development. So it is important to plant natural areas for butterflies.
Many folks are planting their gardens with butterflies in mind. Plant flowers to provide nectar and also host plants for the larva to eat. Wild plants such as common Milkweed for larva to eat are very important so allow a little patch of it to grow in an out of the way spot. All of the Asclepias are good, so grow some of each. All will reseed for years if you allow them to do so. Without such oasis for butterflies their population would decline even more. We too encourage Milkweed to grow uncut all along our creek and never pull it out in the gardens. Milkweed relatives such as the fiery orange Asclepias, we call Butterfly Weed and the tropical Mexican Milkweed are planted in a bed back behind my vegetable garden.
A list of the best plants for Monarchs (there are 100’s more)
•Orange BUTTERFLY WEED (Asclepias tuberosa) A perennial host plant for monarch larvae and nectar source. •SHOWY MILKWEED (Asclepias speciosa) Perennial Host plant for monarch & nectar plant for butterflies. •COMMON MILKWEED (Asclepias syriaca) Perennial Host plant for monarch & nectar plant for butterflies. •SWAMP MILKWEED (Asclepias incarnata subsp. pulchra) Perennial; Host plant for monarch & nectar plant for butterflies. •TROPICAL MILKWEED (Asclepias curassavica) Tender Perennial Host plant for monarch & nectar plant •PURPLE CONEFLOWER (Echinacea purpurea) Perennial, good butterfly nectar plant. •TITHONIA TORCH, Mexican Sunflower Annual, attracts butterflies (3 inches tall) •ZINNIA, Super Giant Mixed (Zinnia) Annual; Good nectar plant for butterflies.
Butterfly Life cycle
If you have Milkweed or Butterfly Weed (Asclepias) growing the butterflies will lay their eggs, which hatch into larva, which in turn make a pupa from which the new butterfly emerges. The new butterfly is driven by instinct to lay eggs on milkweed. Each egg has a hard outer shell to protect the developing larva. It is lined with a layer of wax to prevent the egg from drying out.
Larvae will hatch from the eggs on the Milkweed leaves where they have been deposited. These creatures have three distinct body parts consisting of a head, a body with a thorax and an abdomen. The head has a pair of very short antennae, mouth parts (upper lip, mandibles, and lower lip), and six pairs of very simple eyes, called ocelli. The fleshy tentacles at the front and rear ends of Monarch larvae are not antennae, but they do function as sense organs. It seems the function of the larva is to eat, eat, and eat more before becoming a pupa.
When it pupates or goes into pupa stage, a Monarch larva wiggles out of its larval skin. Under this skin is a cremaster or spiny appendage at the end of the abdomen. The Monarch hooks its cremaster into a silk pad spun by the larva just before pupation; it will hang from this until it emerges as an adult. At first the pupa is very soft and delicate until it hardens.
When ready the butterfly emerges from the pupa. The butterfly is divided into the same major parts as the larva-head, thorax, and abdomen. All butterflies and moths have four wings, two hind wings and two forewings. Small structures attach the wings to the thorax, and muscles attached to these structures move the wings. There are many organs that enable the butterfly to find food, a mate and plants on which to lay its eggs.
This is a just a very brief description of the three stages of the Monarch. Pages have been written about each. There is an excellent website for much more detailed information. This website has been created by the University of Kansas and has much information. They have many good links with a lot of butterfly information. The site suggested the following good idea of way stations and encourages gardeners to plant for Monarchs. Direct quote, "A way station may be defined as an intermediate station between principal stations on a line of travel. If we imagine the principal stations for Monarchs to be the over wintering sites in Mexico and the points of reproduction in the breeding season, then it becomes easy for us to visualize the value of resource-rich way stations along the Monarch’s route through its annual fall and spring migrations. Without resources - in the form of nectar from flowers - fall migratory butterflies would be unable to make the journey to Mexico. Similarly, without milkweeds along the entire route north in the spring and summer months, monarchs would not be able to produce the successive generations that culminate in the migration each fall."
What We Can Do
We need to create and protect Milkweed/Monarch habitats. Monarchs need what the website calls resource patches of plants of the Asclepias family. Everyone should help Monarchs by creating Monarch Way stations in home gardens, schools, parks, zoos, nature centers, field margins, along roadsides, and on other unused plots of land. Without a major effort to restore milkweeds to as many locations as possible, the Monarch population is certain to decline to extremely low levels. In addition to creating Monarch habitats in those areas each of us controls, we need to lobby on behalf of Monarchs. Try to persuade our schools, nature centers, municipalities, and departments of transportation to also create these habitats. This would save money by eliminating unnecessary mowing and use of herbicides.
Monarch butterflies and larvae are fun to observe in the garden. Hopefully we can all do our part to keep them alive and well.
Lorraine Kiefer is the owner of Triple Oaks Nursery and has been a garden writer since 1972. Click here to email her.
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