Dana Dobias has been a master gardener since 1997.
 

 
 

Bringing Back Monarchs
by Dana Dobias - posted 06/24/19

In case you have not been following the news the last few years, the population of monarch butterflies has been declining. When experts study to find out why, they come up with different reasons. Sometimes the problem lies in Mexico where they overwinter, sometimes it lies in the U.S. where large swaths of prairie that supports the plants needed by the monarchs is being re-appropriated by humans for farming and development (buildings and parking lots). And where the monarch population was able to get by on the few weed patches farmers had at the edges of their fields, those weeds are now gone due to the genetically modified crops that can be sprayed with herbicides that allow the crops to grow, but kill the weeds that the monarchs need. 

When gardeners heard that monarch butterflies were in peril, they flew into action looking high and low for plants that monarchs would need to complete their trip. Specifically, monarchs need milkweed (Asclepiasspp.) plants and their close relatives, as these are the only plants the baby monarch butterflies can eat. Ideally, perennials that return year after year are a gardener’s first choice. But those plants are demanding in that they require cold to germinate and they are not overly fond of growing in containers waiting for someone to plant them. They are also not “pretty” in a container, meaning shoppers will pass them by to purchase the showy annuals like Impatiens and marigolds (Tagetesspp.). However, Asclepiasplants can be found and planted and gardeners can feel good about accomplishing something to help monarch butterflies. 

When a gardener starts helping monarchs, other butterflies become noticeable in the landscape. Swallowtails are large and slow moving, making them easy to watch. But swallowtails don’t need Asclepias; they need fennel, parsley, rue, or Golden Alexander plants. Spring azure butterflies are pretty little blue butterflies that are fast and don’t allow gardeners a long time to see them before they flit off to another flower. But they need coral honeysuckle (Lonicera sempervirens) plants for their larvae. 

Spicebush swallowtail butterflies are mostly black with brilliant blue when they open their wings. They also don’t like Asclepias, they like spicebush (Lindera benzoin) among others. 

If you have grown sunflower (Helianthusspp.) plants either on purpose or by accident under a bird feeder, chances are you were shocked one day to walk out and see the leaves covered in large numbers of fuzzy black caterpillars. A little investigation will reveal these are silvery checkerspot butterfly larvae. 

There’s a good chance trees in your area already support many types of butterflies. Elm (Ulmusspp.), oak (Quercusspp.), and hackberry (Celtis occidentalis) trees are often maligned as being “buggy” and not always attractive for landscapes. But tawny emperor, hackberry emperor, American snout, question mark, and mourning cloak butterflies all rely on hackberry trees.

Butterflies are not going to be able to rely on farmers and developers for their survival. They will have to rely on people that love plants and all they bring to our environment. And who better to help restore butterfly populations than gardeners. When a gardener chooses plants for more than the visual impact, there is a reward of a deeper understanding of the landscape as an ecosystem.

 

This article appeared in a previous State-by-State Gardening publication.

 

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