This season I enjoyed a plethora of butterflies in my yard and garden, mostly the beautiful tiger and eastern black swallowtails. The feeling seemed to be reciprocated, as they drank the nectar from my flowers and their larvae (caterpillars) chomped down on my dill and parsley. But one species was conspicuously absent – there were no monarchs.
I am a native and heirloom plant enthusiast, and I have always planted to attract pollinators. But I had not realized that although the adult monarchs drink nectar from a variety of flowers, milkweed is the sole host plant for laying their eggs and feeding their larvae. And I had not planted any Asclepias sp. (milkweed) on the property!
Then I read Barbara Kingsolver’s book Flight Behavior. It is a fictional account but whet my appetite to learn more about the unique, and fragile, life cycle of the monarch butterfly. Monarchs go through four generations each year. The first three hatch and live for about six weeks, but the fourth lives for up to eight months to facilitate migration.
Monarchs cannot tolerate cold weather, so as the temperature drops in autumn, those living in the eastern half of North America migrate to southcentral Mexico to hibernate in oyamel fir trees (always in the same trees, even though a new fourth generation migrates 2,500 miles each year). In the spring, they begin working their way north again, back to the milkweed plants that sustain them.
Unfortunately, herbicide and pesticide use is eradicating the native milkweed in the United States, and their overwintering sites are threatened as development encroaches on the fir forests in Mexico. We can help save this endangered species by planting Monarch Waystations – sites that provide resources necessary for monarchs to produce successive generations and sustain their migration. You can register your waystation through MonarchWatch.org.
My friend, Joanna Kirby, president of the Garden Club of Kentucky, has made this a focal project for her term. They have partnered with Wild Ones to promote Monarch Waystations in gardens, at homes, at county extension offices, at libraries and at schools. The commissioner of state parks and our state naturalist are also on board.
To qualify, in the spring or fall, plant at least 10 milkweed plants – preferably two species, including the common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca), and another native varieties such as butterfly milkweed (A. tuberosa) or swamp milkweed (A. incarnata) as well as native nectar plants, such as black eyed susan, purple coneflower or coreopsis.
Being pesticide-free is crucial because these are food plants for butterflies and other wildlife. Native plants can be purchased from local nurseries such as Springhouse Gardens, Shooting Star Nursury, Michler’s and Locust Trace AgriScience Farm. For more information, visit WildOnes.org.
As Halloween approaches, I am preparing the garden area for my monarch waystation, but I am taking my mission one step further. My costume this year is – what else – a monarch butterfly with a sign that reads: “I’m Endangered – Plant Milkweed for Me!”
Deborah Larkin joined Greensource in 2010 as an environmental educator. She works with numerous schools in Fayette County as part of Greensource’s partnership with LFUCG and is responsible for outreach activities in Boyle, Clark, Garrard and Lincoln counties. She received her bachelor’s in Horticulture from the University of Kentucky. Before coming to Greensource, Larkin worked for 27 years at the Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill, near Harrodsburg, where she researched and re-established the 19th century apple orchard, herb garden and heirloom seed industry.