The Butterfly Garden


I hope your gardens grew as well as mine did this year. Rain, compost, and some joyous but hard work made it so. I have become a guerrilla gardener of sorts. I choose one bed each day and work intently on it for a two-hour limit. I am trying to spend more time enjoying the gardens and less time worrying about perfection. A medical issue has made me extremely sun-sensitive, so I work early in the day. I have never been happier. I plan ahead, work on only one project, and then sit back and enjoy. Terrific!

This year I got very serious about creating an environment for monarch butterflies. One of the reasons that monarch butterflies are so endangered is due to the extensive spraying along roadways and around fields that grow crops. Think about it, when was the last time you saw milkweed plants? I planted common milkweed Asclepius syriaca, swamp milkweed A. incarnata, and butterfly milkweed A. tuberosa and waited eagerly for visitors. They came! I even carried a female monarch butterfly who was feeding on nectar on the purple cone flowers along the side of the house to the backyard where the milkweeds are.

I looked underneath the milkweed leaves in late July. There were eggs! This generation of monarchs try to lay as many eggs as possible, so sometimes there were a surprisingly large number on each plant. The larvae (caterpillars) ate the leaves on my plants, which of course is their job. Yes the plants look ratty; this is not about the plants but helping this endangered species! What a thrill to see them munching. I find the pupal cases to be exquisitely beautiful. I watched. I got to see some of the butterflies emerging. These butterflies spent their time drinking nectar from other plants in the garden. They did not mate nor did they lay eggs. These are the monarchs that will migrate to Mexico. There they will overwinter. They will mate, lay eggs on the return route, and die.

Would you please consider making your property a way station for monarch butterflies in the future? It is believed that over 860 million milkweed plants were destroyed in the northern United States over the past ten years. Scientists understand how much milkweed is needed to sustain a monarch population by noting the number of monarch butterflies that make it to Mexico. The information that I received from Ball Publishing Company indicates that more people must help before this beautiful species disappears.

Why monarchs? What makes monarchs so special is that they are highly visible and beautiful. They are the insect poster child, so to speak, just as pandas serve as a mammal poster child. Please don’t forget the other creatures that are not so pretty, but are part of our natural world. This year, I found three pupating black swallowtails who had feasted on my fennel. I thought it was wonderful. Not everyone shares this enthusiasm.

There is a species of milkweed we can grow as an annual called Asclepius curassavica, which is a very pretty annual milkweed easily grown from seed. And yes, I have grown it. It has been associated with keeping monarchs in one place and delaying their migration because it doesn’t die back easily in the late autumn. If you grow it, please pull it out in early September.

By the way, you can tell a male monarch butterfly from a female by observing that the veins on the wings are darker and more pronounced in the females. The males also possess two quite visible glands on the wings. Children are absolutely thrilled by this observation!


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