The Monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus) is an amazing insect, which is famous for its amazing migratory habits in addition to being admired for its great beauty.
But regrettably the Monarch’s numbers have been dropping fast because of combination of climate change, habitat destruction, the use of pesticides, and the absence of foodplants for its caterpillars, which can only eat species in the Milkweed family (Asclepiadaceae). However, this implies that gardeners in almost any state where Monarchs live can help preserve the species by growing these plants that are attractive in their gardens.
Monarch’s migrate all the way from Mexico and the Southern States of North America up as far as Canada and then replicate this in a long return journey when they fly south to overwinter.
There are a number of species of Milkweed that grow both in the cooler north and in the tropical heat of the south. Female Monarchs don’t care what the type is just as long as it is an Asclepias it’ll do fine as somewhere to put its eggs and feed its striped caterpillars.
Milkweed will grow well in large flowerpots or in large windowboxes if you’ve got no access to a suitable garden, and, of course, that the foodplant could be grown in containers on a roof-garden or balcony.
Fortunately, in response to a growing awareness of the plight of the beautiful but endangered insect, millions of people are doing what they can to help and there are now very many sites which could be easily found by searching online that will provide Milkweed seeds. Some of these sites also provide small ready-germinated plants, and others have a wide variety of Milkweed species to choose from. There are even websites that supply seeds at no cost as long as you send a SASE.
Monarch caterpillars are extremely greedy and eat a whole lot of leaves. They will even consume the flowers and seed pods, although fortunately the plants will often sprout again. The more Milkweed plants you grow the more caterpillars you will have the ability to support.
To watch the phases of the Monarch’s lifecycle is a superb experience as you find the colourful striped caterpillars eventually change into jade-green chrysalises before their final transformation to the glorious winged adult. Before they hatch another real miracle happens because the red and black of the newly-formed wings get stronger and stronger in colour and can be seen clearly through the transparent wing instances of the chrysalis.
To see this happen in your own garden brings a real sense of having done something positive to help one of Mother Nature’s most beautiful creatures to survive. In case you have plenty of flowers growing the odds are that the adult Monarchs will stay a while too. If they do, it’s as if they are saying thank you!