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Monday, November 1, 2021

How to help the Monarch Butterflies

Monarch, ready to be released. Image credit.
Perhaps you've heard the sad reports recently about the drastic reduction of monarch butterflies found in their California, winter nesting sites (only 2,000 counted in southern California in January of 2021). LINK-Western Monarch populations
 
There are ways you can help their plight. Growing their host-plant, milkweed is relatively easy to do or, if you don't have space in your yard, or are lacking a "green thumb", here is a link to a petition asking the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to place monarch butterflies on the list of threatened and endangered species; and asking the Environmental Protection Agency to eliminate pollinator poisons.
 
This post is about our experience growing milkweed at the Sharing Gardens with tips on how you can do it too.
 
Adri's instructions
Last spring, when grade schools were first shut down in Oregon, our dear little friend Adri (who's been coming to the Sharing Gardens since she was a baby in a back-pack) arrived at our weekly volunteer-time with a small packet of showy milkweed seeds and instructions for planting them that she'd carefully hand-copied from her teacher's instructions. She was wondering if we'd be willing to grow some out in our gardens as she doesn't have a sunny enough yard at home. We said, "Sure!".

Showy Milkweed in bloom
We've been growing "showy" milkweed (Asclepias speciosa) since 2018. To begin with, someone gave us a few "starts" and a hand-full of seeds to experiment with. The variety we grow is native to the Pacific NW - where we live - and well- suited to our site (full sun, moist soil). (If you live elsewhere, you might wish to research what varieties will do well for you). Also, whatever variety you decide to plant, there seems to be some evidence that butterflies prefer native species to their hybrid cousins, so choose accordingly (LINK).
 
We had tried several different ways to germinate the seeds but they were only moderately successful. We did establish a patch of about a dozen plants that wintered over and began producing flowers themselves (summer 2020) but the method Adri brought to us has been the most successful so far. Here's what to do: Wrap the seeds in a damp paper-towel (squeeze it out thoroughly so it's just lightly moist), secure the seeds in a sealed freezer bag and put them in your refrigerator for 30 days. This simulates a cold, wet winter that the seeds need to break from dormancy. Plant in soil (about 1/4" deep) being very careful not to damage the tiny emerging root. Place in a sunny window, or greenhouse and water from below. They should emerge from the soil in about ten days.
 
This is what seedlings should look like after placing the seeds in a damp paper-towel inside a zipper bag and refrigerating for thirty days.

To grow seedlings bigger, arrange in potting soil...

...and cover with about 1/4" soil. Be very careful with their fragile roots.

Seedlings after several more weeks...

Though theoretically, you could transplant the seedlings into the ground at this point, they will have a much better chance of surviving if you pot them into larger pots and plant them into the ground once they have bigger root systems. With Adri's seedlings, we re-potted them two times through the summer until they were in half-gallon pots. These, we wintered-over by clustering the potted plants in a sunny spot in our yard, protected from cold, north winds under a blanket of fall leaves.

Adri and Kaylynn with milkweed plants at about 120 days from putting seeds in fridge. Two plants per pot.

Milkweed plants wintered over two years in pots. Ready to get into the ground!

This coming spring, we'll transplant them into a sunny spot. Aside from propagating from seeds, the roots also send out runners and start new plants. We have a patch of milkweeds that grew as volunteers from underneath the pots we'd wintered-over in a previous season!

Milkweed is a perennial plant. Under the right conditions, it returns year, after year. But plants don't begin flowering till their second or third year so be patient!
 
The showy milkweed is well-named as it has beautiful, pink flowers but its real contribution to a perennial garden is its rich fragrance. Very much like an Asian lily! Though we've yet to see any monarchs on our plants, during their blooming season last year, our plants were covered in many kinds of other pollinators including bees, both wild and "honey" bees.

Life-cycle of the monarch butterfly (by Adri Kitchen).
Milkweed is a "host" plant to the monarch because adults enjoy the nectar produced by its flowers (though they seem to enjoy other nectar plants too LINK). But, as far as is known, they only lay their eggs on milkweed plants as these are what the larvae eat. Milkweed has a mild toxin in it which builds up in the bodies of the larvae and makes them bitter for their predators to eat. This toxin remains in the bodies of the adult butterflies too also giving them protection from predators.

People who raise cattle have tried to eradicate milkweed because it can be toxic to their livestock. Since we're vegetarians and have no grazing animals on our land, we're happy to provide this host plant for the monarchs and other beneficial insects who enjoy its nectar.

Studies show that a mixed stand of wildflowers seems to be beneficial to monarchs (and probably to other pollinators too). In other words, it's not ideal to grow milkweed alone. Llyn with crocosmia (red) and tansy (yellow - a volunteer "weed" that, though reviled by horse-owners is beloved of bees! Super fragrant too!).
 
Recent studies suggest that monarchs have a higher reproduction success-rate if the milkweeds are growing in a stand of mixed wildflowers LINK. We didn't know this when we established our first plot so they are growing alone. But this next spring, when we plant Adri's plants, we will grow some other wildflowers amongst them. That should be really beautiful!
 
Be sure to plant at least a dozen plants in a patch. If the larvae emerge from their eggs and begin munching their way through the leaves of the plant and should fall off for some-reason, they need to have multiple options for plants to climb back up on. Also, adult monarchs are far more likely to find a large patch of milkweeds than a small one. 

Plant at least a dozen milkweed plants together. This will help monarchs find them.

Milkweed seeds, ready for harvest.
The cycle of planting milkweed is complete when they begin producing flowers and seeds (in their second or third year). We have some extra seeds if you're interested in growing some milkweed in your yard. Or, if you're local and would like us to grow out some "starts" for you, let us know (shareinjoyATgmail.com).

Honey bee on tansy.
Here are some other links with info you may find helpful and inspiring as you begin your butterfly garden:
 
Here is a link to a petition asking the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to place monarch butterflies on the list of threatened and endangered species; and asking the Environmental Protection Agency to eliminate pollinator poisons.

These findings suggest that the efforts of individual gardeners to plant milkweed, either wild-type native plants or native cultivars, can be helpful in supporting the declining populations of both monarch butterflies and other insects. 
 
"For example, the diversity of plants in a garden, the specific plants that are used and their arrangement — all of those things matter for how the butterflies are able to locate the hosts and move from one to the next."
 
 
Finally, some good news! Conservationists have successfully reintroduced previously extinct large blue butterflies to the UK, with the creatures populating parts of the country for the first time in 150 years. 
 
Image credit: Llyn Peabody - 2020

Here's some great information from the National Wildlife Federation on how to benefit birds and butterflies. When you're planning your garden this coming spring, think of the monarchs!  Check out Xerces Society and Monarch Joint Venture for more information on national efforts and ways you can help. Monarch Watch and Journey North are two citizen science groups that record monarch  and milkweed sightings. For an interactive map that tracks seasonal migration, try Journey North There are monarch butterflies in the Willamette Valley, but we need more citizen science reporters!

Ways you can help right now?
1. Plant native milkweed: In Willamette Valley, that's showy milkweed (Asclepias speciosa) and narrow leafed milkweed (Asclepias fasciculatis)

2. Provide nectar
3. Don't use broad spectrum pesticides (https://monarchjointventure.org/monarch-biology/threats/pesticides)
4. Reduce your lawn size
5. Support local efforts by educating others, advocating for different practices in your community, or become a citizen scientist

Great news! More monarch habitat in Wisconsin - LINK


 


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