Beneficial insects Butterflies

My Monarch Mission!

In 2013, I went to Mexico. Not to sunbathe my bikini body on a tourist beach. Ten years ago, I crossed central Mexico, with my back pack and my three “Sunny Girlz”. We went to see the overwintering sites of monarch butterflies (Danaus plexippus), in the mountains of Michoacán. And it’s one of the most extraordinary experiences I’ve had in my life.

Times are hard for the beautiful monarch. Image: Pixabay

It’s not surprising that I feel a very special attachment to these sumptuous butterflies. Their journey is miraculous. And more and more, this journey is strewn with pitfalls. Climatic changes, mowing of ditches in agricultural areas and destruction of habitats along their migratory corridors are among the few reasons that complicate the journey of monarchs. This is why monarch populations have dropped by almost 90% in the last twenty years.

It’s in this context that actions have multiplied to ensure the protection of the species and the protection of its habitats. Throughout this process, Canada plays a key role. Because it’s our butterflies (and those from the United States as well) that make the long journey of more than 4000 km back to the overwintering sites of Mexico. Since Canada is a breeding ground for monarchs, it’s beneficial to encourage this cycle as much as possible. The more monarchs there are at the starting line, the more there are likely to be on arrival!

Milkweed: THE plant to have!

Of course, the importance of milkweed in the diet and reproduction of monarchs is well documented and increasingly known to the general public. Many schools now have a small butterfly garden in which they grow milkweed and other bee plants.

Common milkweed is essential to the monarch survival. Caterpillars feed only on this plant. Image: Unsplash

Milkweed plays a vital role in monarch reproduction because it’s the only plant on which monarchs lay their eggs. Milkweed is also the only food source for monarch caterpillars. That’s why so much emphasis is placed on milkweed.

In Quebec, there are two species of native milkweed. Common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) occurs in open fields and vacant lots. The edges of ditches and strips along highways are also sites where this species is often found. Swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata), on the other hand, prefers marshy places and the banks of watercourses. It’s mainly concentrated in southwestern Quebec.

Good news, scientific studies reveal that the species monarchs prefer are exactly those mentioned above! When the monarch is given the choice between a dozen species of milkweed, it’s on these two species that the greatest number of eggs are laid. But other species should not be neglected, including horticultural species such as butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa), as all of the milkweeds tested hosted eggs and eventually cute, hungry caterpillars! As a rough guide, there are nearly 205 different species of milkweed, with the majority native to America and a few native to Africa.

The monarch caterpillar is as beautiful as the adult butterfly! Image Unsplash

Create a Monarch Oasis

It’s relatively easy to dedicate a patch of your garden to monarchs. All it takes are a few milkweed plants and some nectar flowers to attract the adult butterflies. In Quebec, the butterflies arrive from their long journey around the beginning of June. They must therefore be attracted with nectariferous plants, such as certain early-flowering asters (Aster alpinus) and annuals, such as heliotrope (Heliotropium arborescens), cosmos (Cosmos bipinnatus) or lantana (Lantana camara). Then, before the great migratory departure, the monarchs must fill up on high energy nectar with autumn-flowering plants, such as goldenrod (Solidago spp.), fall asters (Aster spp. and Symphyotrichum spp.) and liatrids (Liatris spicata). There’s plenty to choose from when it comes to flowering plants that attract monarchs .

The easiest way to create a monarch oasis is to choose an area of your garden that you simply stop mowing and plant in some of these plants loved by monarchs. Including some milkweed, of course! The goal is to create an inviting wild prairie effect.

Be Part of the Change, Thanks to Citizen Science

One of the great challenges in the exercise of protecting monarch butterfly populations and their habitats is sometimes the lack of scientific data. This information plays a key role in supporting the arguments presented to government authorities, in order to convince them to develop legislation aimed at truly protecting the species and its habitats. This is what the Mission Monarque program aims to accomplish and in a great way! Indeed, this is participatory and citizen science, which means that everyone can contribute to data entry. In summary, find milkweed plants, inspect and note for eggs or larvae. Very simple… but valuable and useful information to support the cause of monarchs!

Live in a City Friendly to Monarchs

Another great way to contribute to the increase of areas for monarchs is to invite your municipality to subscribe to the “Mayor’s Monarch Pledge” program. This program is an initiative of the Suzuki Foundation and Space for Life. Participating municipalities undertake to modify their regulations in order to promote the development of areas favorable to the growth of milkweed and bee plants. Some cities free some areas from the lawnmower to make them naturalized areas. Then, municipalities can take action through outreach programs, inviting their citizens to create monarch habitats in their own yards!

In short, there are lots of ways s to contribute to this good cause and give these precious insects a little helping hand. For me, milkweed gallops freely in my rarely mowed backyard lawn. Whenever I have a few minutes to spare near a wild colony of common milkweed, I check it for signs of larvae. The quest is not always fruitful, but who cares, it has a certain utility, if only to immerse myself in the contemplation of the plant world and its visitors!

Julie Boudreau is a horticulturist who trained at the Institut de technologie agroalimentaire in Saint-Hyacinthe, Québec. She’s been working with plants for more than 25 years. She has published many gardening books and hosted various radio and television shows. She now teaches horticulture at the Centre de formation horticole of Laval. A great gardening enthusiast, she’s devoted to promoting gardening, garden design, botany and ecology in every form. Born a fan of organic gardening, she’s curious and cultivates a passion for all that can be eaten. Julie Boudreau is “epicurious” and also fascinated by Latin names.

9 comments on “My Monarch Mission!

  1. Monarch Grove in Los Osos is named for the monarch butterflies that swarm the blue gum and red gum bloom. An old colleague lives there. It is spectacular, but ecologically dysfunctional. The blue gum and red gum are aggressively invasive exotic species, but no one wants to remove them because the monarch butterflies swarm their bloom. Some native species that rely on the monarch butterflies for pollination are being ignored and inadequately pollinated, which might be why California poppy is less prominent than it was prior to the proliferation of exotic species. (California poppy is less prominent mostly because of displacement by more aggressive exotic species though.) Nowadays, the blue gum and red gum are contained, so that their established forests survive, while not allowed to migrate.

    • marianwhit

      Tony thanks for your comment…I always appreciate what you have to share.

      • You are welcome; although I likely mentioned this earlier. I tend to get carried away with it.

  2. David McNeil

    This summer I will be planting a cottage garden. I would like to include some Milkweed seeds. Would anyone know where to get them?

    • Many seed companies offer them – if you’re in the USA try Botanical Interests and Prairie Moon for a huge selection that includes varieties suited to different regions. Don’t forget cold stratification (cool moist conditions to wake up the seeds so they sprout) and good luck!

      • marianwhit

        Better yet look around locally and ask in local social media groups…plants evolve “in place” and if you can find a legal source of wild seed nearby, that is the best case scenario.

    • Mary L Discuillo

      Amazon carries many vendors that sell milkweed seeds. Find out which species do best in your climate and focus on those. If you plant outside in March maybe April(depending on how cold it is where you are) the seeds will stratify and start sprouting when weather warms. One note don’t plant Mexican milkweed(orange/red flowers) They don’t die back and can interfere with both migration and the parasite o.e. that will kill them .Encourage everyone to stop using Roundup and other herbicides that kill milkweed

  3. I have two large planters in the front yard. Would a milkweed plant do well in them?

    • There are some varieties that do ok in containers – make sure there is plenty of room and that the soil in the planters drains well. Five gallon or larger is a good size. They’ll need regular watering / attention since containers dry out quicker. Once established most are fairly drought tolerant and carefree.

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