I’ll never forget the time I held my first Monarch! I was 5 years old and I marveled at the incredible orange and black colors and the fine border of spotting around the edge of the wings. Fast forward more than 45 years and this butterfly I’ve enjoyed every season may no longer be taken for granted. There was an almost 59% decline in the area Monarchs overwinter in Michoacán, Mexico last winter compared to the year prior. According to Lawrence, KS based Monarch Watch (www.monarchwatch.org) “this population is the smallest recorded since the Monarch colonies came to the attention of scientists in 1975.” Monarchs themselves are not endangered as they live in tropical America but this incredible migrating population that comes to us each summer in the temperate parts of the United States and Canada is of concern.
Here a female Monarch nectars on Tropical Milkweed during Powell Gardens’ Festival of Butterflies.
Monarchs, like all insects have the remarkable ability to rebound in numbers quickly. They lay many (100+) eggs unlike say a robin, which lays 4 eggs in its nest and may have just 3 clutches a year. A Monarch also has several generations a summer so their potential to increase is more than exponential. What you can do to help is plant some milkweed in your own yard, patio or even deck on a high-rise!
Above is an egg of a Monarch, they lay their eggs only on plants in the milkweed family. Plant a milkweed and they will come. The egg hatches into a tiny caterpillar which feeds on the leaves, flowers and stems and grows to about 3″ in length. It then hangs upside down in a “J” and form a jewel-like green chrysalis adorned with gold. The adult butterfly emerges from the chrysalis. You’ll have to come to our Festival of Butterflies to see the whole miraculous metamorphosis.
Butterflyweed (Asclepias tuberosa) is one of the most garden worthy of milkweeds and serves as great nectar and food plant. If you have a hot, sunny location then this is the perfect milkweed for you. This picture is from the Island Garden but this plant also grows wild on the prairie remnants along our nature trail. Butterflyweed is usually in peak bloom around the Fourth of July.
Swamp or Rose Milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) is another native milkweed that does well in gardens especially in moist to wet soil. This one is a wild plant growing on the lake edge of the Island Garden. We actually grew some plants from our wild swamp milkweeds to sell during the Festival of Butterflies. Swamp Milkweed does well in full sun or part shade and likes extra water. It’s perfect for a container you water, just our regular heavy soil, in a rain garden or beside a pond. Swamp Milkweed is our last to bloom, local native strains like this usually don’t bloom until September and offer superb nectar for migrating Monarchs. Never forget to smell this milkweed with a light sweet aroma that reminds me of candy corn!
Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) is one of the best host plants for Monarchs. This plant can be a garden “thug” as it can run by underground stems (rhizomes) to form a colony like the above picture. This gorgeous mass is in the parking lot landscape of Powell Gardens where it is free to roam. Common Milkweed also blooms in mid-summer. The rich full and sweet aroma of these flowers is one of may favorite floral fragrances and a nectar source to a vast array of beneficial insects besides the Monarch. If you have a more natural space, plant this plant!
If you have quite a bit of shade (but not dense shade) there is even another native Purple Milkweed (Asclepias purpurascens) that will thrive for you. This picture was taken on the now shady end of the Prairie Border in the Perennial Garden. Purple Milkweed is also one of our first milkweeds to bloom, usually in June.
Tropical Milkweed (Asclepias curassavica) is just that, at tropical South American species that does phenomenally well as a container plant in our region. It is NOT winter hardy for the most part. It blooms all summer and fall until a frost and is a phenomenal nectar and host plant for the Monarch. It is discouraged for planting in mild winter areas of the country but is definitely a boon to Monarchs in our area. This is the cultivar ‘Silky Red’ and we will have it for sale during the Festival of Butterflies.
This is another cultivar of Tropical Milkweed called ‘Silky Gold’ with a unique amber or orange-yellow color to its flowers. The butterflies like its flowers and foliage equally well.
Nectar sources are also needed in the garden to help adult Monarchs feed. Butterflybush (Buddleia species) are one of the best, longest-blooming nectar sources for gardens and containers in our region. They are not native and considered invasive in milder regions but with a warming climate we are now promoting only the seedless varieties so you won’t have to worry about them escaping. This is the Lo & Behold Blue Chip Butterflybush in our Conifer Garden. We will sell several seedless varieties (cultivars) of butterfybush at the Festival of Butterflies: small-sized (to 3 ft.) will be Flutterby Petite Blue Heaven, medium-sized (3-5 ft.) will be Flutterby Lavender and large-sized (greater than 5 feet) will be Flutterby Grande Peach Cobbler and Blueberry Cobbler.
Blazingstars (Liatris species) are one of the best native nectar sources for Monarchs. The tall spikes here are of Prairie Blazingstar (Liatris pycnostachya) in the Insectaries Garden.
A good mix of nectar sources for Monarchs attracts the most butterflies. The image below is of the native strain of Purple Coneflower (Echinacea purpurea). Our insectaries garden which contains several species of milkweeds as well as both native and cultivated nectar plants is certified as a Monarch Waystation by Monarch Watch.
So lets all take action to ensure more Monarchs return to Mexico this winter. Plant milkweeds and appropriate nectar plants in your own private outdoor space! Attend the Festival of Butterflies August 2-4 and 9-11 to learn more and experience the miraculous metamorphosis of butterflies as well as their marvelous beauty. Monarch Watch staff will be at Powell Gardens during the event too and display the whole life cycle of the Monarch and provide additional guidance on how you can help the Monarch. Besides the Monarch over 50 species of wild butterflies have been seen at Powell Gardens during the Festival and many of the most unusual native caterpillars will be on display in our Cat (short for caterpillar) Room. There will be a chance for anyone to touch caterpillars in our Caterpillar Petting Zoo (thanks to the Johnson County KS Extention Master Gardeners). Also see around 50 species of Florida and exotic butterflies including the Blue Morpho and Atlas Moth in the Conservatory.