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Monarch butterflies, once strictly limited to the New World, are now found in Europe too. Source: Kenneth Dwain Harrelson, Wikimedia Commons

The famous migratory butterfly, the monarch (Danaus plexippus), is native to North and Central America and northern South America. (Elsewhere in South America, it is replaced by the southern monarch [Danaus erippus], a similar but essentially non-migratory species.) But, while the adult butterfly can feed on the nectar of a wide range of flowers, the larva of this species is extremely limited in its food sources. It can consume only milkweed leaves (Asclepias spp.), a genus originally limited to the New World, as well as those of its next-of-kin, the false cotton bush (Gomphocarpus spp.), originally from South Africa. However, the monarch never managed to find the way to South Africa. So, for tens of thousands of years, the monarch was strictly limited to the New World where milkweeds abound.

Expansionist Ideas

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The narrow leaf false cotton bush (Gomphocarpus fruticosus) is one of the food plants that have allowed the monarch to settle in new territories. Source: Xemenendura, Wikimedia Commons

That’s no longer the case! Humans have planted various species of false cotton bush and milkweed as ornamental plants, and a few have become naturalized well outside of their natural range. Tropical milkweed (Asclepias curassavica) and narrow leaf false cotton bush (Gomphocarpus fruticosus), for example, are well established in most subtropical regions around the world and that’s been the case since at least the beginning of the 19th century.

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Monarch butterfly distribution today  . Source: monarchlab.org

The northern monarch (D. plexippus) has taken advantage of the widened distribution of its host plants to expand its range. It first established a foothold in the Hawaiian Islands in the 1840s and from there spread throughout the islands of the South Pacific in the 1850s and 1860s. It first appeared in Australia and New Zealand in the 1870s and is now firmly entrenched in both countries, even fairly common in some areas.

So much for the Pacific. It somehow crossed the Atlantic as well, first showing up in the Canary Islands, off the coast of Africa, in the 1880s, then spreading to other islands in Macaronesia (Madeira, the Azores, etc.).

By Wind, Wing or Sail?

No one knows for certain how this dispersion took place. Did the butterfly travel as a stowaway on boats from one continent to another? Did it fly on its own? (Since adults can travel 1,400 miles [2,200 km] in the wild, that’s far from impossible). Or were they carried across oceans by the wind? We may never know.

Now Continental Europe

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Monarch butterfly and caterpillar on tropical milkweed (Asclepias curassavica). Source: www.jungledragon.com

Monarch butterflies have been showing up sporadically in Europe for hundreds of years, but at first, showed no inclination of trying to settle down permanently. Then in 1980, a population of monarchs was found naturalized in southern Spain (Malaga) and it has since spread along the west coast of Portugal and the southern coast of Spain, two regions where tropical milkweed (Asclepias curassavica) and narrow-leaf false cotton bush (Gomphocarpus fruticosus) are well established. It is also seen in summer and early fall in France and the British Isles. In fact, one female laid eggs on a milkweed in Kew Gardens in London, but the gardeners there brought them indoors to hatch, so the next generation never had a chance to start a local generation.

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Butterfly weed (A. tuberosa) is a hardy species that is grown as an ornamental in Europe, but probably not extensively enough to support a local population of monarch butterflies. Source: Aaron Carlson, Wikimedia Commons

Indeed, the monarch butterfly may never be able to fully settle in temperate Europe due to the lack of cold hardy milkweeds there. Some hardy species are now being grown as perennials, but only in gardens. Butterfly weed (A. tuberosa) and swamp milkweed (A. incarnata), for example, are known to European gardeners, but have not naturalized, which limits the possibilities for breeding monarch to settle there permanently.

Still, the many European readers of this blog can monitor the presence of this insect in their gardens in summer and early fall. The monarch is easy to recognize not only because of its flamboyant orange color with black veins, but also because it is the largest butterfly in Europe.

Whether the monarch only maintains a tenuous foothold in Europe or fully establishes itself remains to be seen. And whether its presence on European soil is a good thing or not is also questionable. Only time will tell!

11 comments on “Monarchs Arrive in Europe!

  1. Pingback: Fresh News About Monarch Butterflies – Laidback Gardener

  2. The monarch’s numbers are plummeting in North America. particularly the western monarch. It’s only about 10% of what it was in the 1990s. We have habitat destruction and pesticides to blame. Given the current administration’s utter lack of regard for all-things environment, my hopes are not high it will improve anytime soon.

    When I read recently about milkweed in Europe, the monarch’s sole host plant, I got to thinking perhaps the monarch once existed here (I live in Italy now)? This butterfly has a migration like no other – up to nearly 3000 miles for the eastern monarch that migrates to Central Mexico.

    I agree. The problems of invasive species are worldwide. In the US, the European honey bee may be partially (obviously the highly toxic environment caused by pesticides is a key issue) responsible for the decline of native bees through the spread of diseases and competition for forage. They are also negatively impacting our native plants through less efficient pollinating.

    Also, countless other invasive species (plants, animals, and diseases) were brought to North America including scotch broom, scotch thistle, ivy, and wild pigs to name a few. Some homeowners devote their lives to removing ivy. I have volunteered in forests attempting to remove scotch broom both plants can easily snuff out natives. Kudzu from Asia, Japanese Knotwood – all major issues in the US.

    Thanks for your post! I’d be delighted to see monarchs here and to educate folks on their incredible metamorphosis. Pure magic.

    • I think the milkweeds in Europe are also introduced plants. I was always told they were strictly native to North America.

      • Interesting! I thought Gomphocarpus fruticosus was from South Africa. I’ve never seen that one in the US. We have another narrowleaf, Asclepias fascicularis.


      • Yes, Gomphrocarpus is from Africa, but it’s not officially a milkweed (Asclepias spp.), although it’s a close relative and monarchs can feed on it. Asclepias fasicularis is originally from California.

      • Thanks for that clarification. I should’ve caught that one! Asclepias fasicularis is a monarch favorite because the leaves are delicate enough for 1st instar caterpillars.


  3. darosol132

    Hi Larry. An interesting article. A quick correction on the name for the island group Macaronesia (which you misspelled “Macronesia”), courtesy of Wikipedia:

    ” Macaronesia is occasionally misspelled “Macronesia” in false analogy with Micronesia, an unrelated Pacific archipelago containing, among other nations, a country of the same name.”

    So why is it called “Macaronesia”? Again from Wikipedia:

    “The name is derived from the Greek words for “islands of the fortunate” ??????? ????? makár?n nêsoi, a term used by Ancient Greek geographers for islands to the west of the Straits of Gibraltar.”

    Best wishes,

    David “Smartarse” Solomon

  4. Great they have butterflies from north america and gave us red lily beetles earwigs not to mention garlic mustard dog strangling vine etc etc

    • True enough… and, at this point, there is no proof that humans brought the monarchs. Personally, I like to think they made it on their own.

      • darosol132

        Hi Pat,

        Not sure you’re being serious, but assuming you are, I’ll be happy to send you a (very long) list of noxious plants and animals that have come to the UK and Europe from N. America, inconvenienced humans and threatened native wildife with extinction.

        In Trump’s era of conspiracy theories and isolationism, I think it’s important to acknowledge that the problem of invasive species from other countries is world-wide and is NOT a one-way street. If anyone’s to plame, it’s homo sapiens as a whole….

        Best wishes,


        PS have you tried eating garlic mustard? Assuming you’re referring to Alliaria petiolata, its leaves go very nicely in a sandwich.

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