Planting Milkweed for Monarchs

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For many of us, Monarch butterflies conjure cherished memories of childhood. However, this beloved butterfly once so familiar has become more and more absent from our gardens. Scientists believe a lack of habitat along with colder than usual weather patterns has caused their numbers to drop in recent years.

Consider this- the monarch is the only butterfly known to migrate like a bird. They can fly 100 miles in a day and travel up to 3000 miles to reach their winter habitat in Mexico. Upon arrival, they will join tens of thousands of fellow monarchs and spend the winter gathered in fir trees. As spring approaches, they will breed, lay eggs and a new generation will start the cycle all over flying north in search of milkweed.

That's where we can help. Monarchs will look for milkweed plants when they are ready to lay their eggs. Newly hatched caterpillars only eat milkweed. The toxins in milkweed which are poisonous to so many animals keep predators away from the yellow striped caterpillars. Even humans find the milky sap to be poisonous if consumed in large quantities. It is also a skin irritant.

As many people know, schools, gardeners and naturalists have been working to re-build the monarch population by restoring milkweed to our landscape. Native butterfly weed, swamp milkweed and common milkweed are all excellent choices for a monarch way station. These plants will survive in your garden for many years.

Asclepias tuberosa, butterfly weed is a native milkweed and is the 2017 Perennial Plant of the Year. It forms a small shrub-like plant but will die down to the ground completely over the winter. The plant has bright orange flowers that are attractive to many pollinators and is fairly easy to grow.

I have also had great success with annual milkweed. Tropical milkweed or blood flower is very appealing to both hummingbirds and butterflies and is pictured in the photo. With its showy red and yellow blossoms, Asclepias curassavica is a showstopper in the garden and a magnet for butterflies and hummingbirds. It is only a perennial in zones 8a-11 so seeding is not an issue. This annual blooms until the first frost and is deer and rabbit resistant.

No matter what type of milkweed you choose-and there are many types-try to make room in your garden for at least one or two plants. The monarch butterfly needs your support.