Monday, November 13, 2017
Three Simple Ways to Garden for Monarch Butterflies
This past weekend I got to enjoy being with a room full of folks who completely understand the value of native plants to native wildlife. They "get" the concept of co-evolution, the way that native pollinators and native plants have evolved to be mutually dependent. And, of course, the popular issue of supporting Monarchs eventually came up because we all now know these beautiful icons are also dependent on a specific host plant. But when the topic of planting milkweed for Monarchs came up, our discussion underscored something I find myself repeating over and over, and repeated yet again to this experienced group. When several of them were surprised, I decided to repeat it here as well. Remember, if you hear or see something repeated three times, it's going to be a test question.
As central Texans who find ourselves smack dab in the squeeze point through which all Monarchs east of the Rockies travel during their migration, we really need to focus on providing nectar sources during the fall. Yes, nectar sources, not milkweed. Monarch adults expend a LOT of energy during that long trip to Mexico. That requires ready access to plentiful sources of carbohydrates and amino acids along the way. These are provided by the flowering plants we generally consider beneficial to both bees and butterflies.
In general, Monarchs suspend reproduction until sometime around February to avoid depleting the energy stores needed to migrate the long distance required and survive the winter roost. To underscore the test question here, from August through December, they need all the nectar sources we can provide, as well as the shelter a variety of plants can supply, along any route they may travel south.
The milkweed we've been programmed to plant will still be needed in the spring as they make the return trip. As up to five generations may be born on that migration back northwards, they'll need nectar sources again, but also the milkweed on which those generations depend. Yes, that's when we need to break out the milkweed. I already hear you saying, "But it's October and they're laying eggs. I'm seeing caterpillars eating that tropical milkweed I was told to plant." I have no doubt you have. But are you seeing eggs or caterpillars on any of our native milkweeds? I suspect you do not. They're all milkweeds, but there's evidence they don't affect Monarchs in exactly the same way.
There is growing concern that tropical milkweed, Asclepia curassavica, may endanger migrating Monarchs for a number of reasons: (a) a disruption of reproductive diapause, resulting in extended breeding by migrating adults, (b) the presence of OE spores in plants that don't die back regularly in increasingly temperate winters, (c) insufficient food stores and freezing temperatures affecting caterpillars developing late in the season. While we wait for the experts to settle this issue, there are three simple things we can do.
Right now you could check out the links included in this post and concentrate on making available a wide variety of nectar producing plants so Monarchs can do what? FEED IN THE FALL.
Then, if you grow them, cut your tropical milkweed plants back to a height of about 6 inches sometime around Labor Day. CLEAR THE WAY ON LABOR DAY.
Around Valentine's Day, start planning the welcome back party because those returning Monarchs will be feeling frisky again. This is the time a good host will provide a full menu of host plants as well as a variety of nectar plants, meaning plenty to eat AND drink. The native milkweed seeds that you planted last year (you did that, right?) should start coming up and any tropical milkweeds you cut back around Labor Day will begin to put out new growth. Just remember, FULL MENU IN FEBRUARY.
So there you have it - my three simple ways to garden for Monarch butterflies:
FEED IN THE FALL
CLEAR THE WAY ON LABOR DAY
FULL MENU IN FEBRUARY
All material © 2017 by Vicki Blachman for Playin' Outside. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.