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How to Help Sustain Monarchs

How to Help Sustain Monarchs

How to Help Sustain Monarchs

We’ve heard that the habitat for Monarch butterflies is on the decline. Most recently the news came out that President Trump’s border wall, if he has his way, will eliminate almost 70% of the  National Butterfly Center in Mission, Texas. Not good for Monarchs with wings.

Butterflies, like bees, are considered a critical to our environment because they are pollinator. The good news is you can literally grow your own.

A few years ago in the April 2014 print version of The Life Connection I wrote an article about my experience growing Asclepias Tuberosa, usually called butterfly weed and the type plant that Monarch butterflies feed and breed on. While a couple of varieties of Asclepias work, this is most common in Southern California. It sustains and attracts them. It doesn’t need a lot space and grows on a small balcony or in a garden.

In their long travels Monarchs somehow find it. Believe me. One day you have a great looking plant and the next you notice the leaves are being eaten. That’s good news because nothing eats butterfly weed except Monarch butterflies—without learning their lesson—and Monarchs only eat butterfly weed. And the Monarch caterpillars won’t bother other plants.

Here’s the article first published in 2014. We hope it inspires you to grow butterfly weed yourself. Plant it and they will come. —Steve Hays

There are some things in life that are too enjoyable for words. Nature provides us a lot to enjoy. What comes to mind first for me are the things that I see often, yet never get tired of. I’m thinking of hummingbirds, sunsets and Monarch butterflies. Whether they are critical to the environment or not, I just don’t want to lose what can always catch my attention and inspire me.

When I lived in a condo in Cardiff I always had several hummingbird feeders. After moving to a house in Vista I made sure to plant when I knew would attract hummingbirds. The fact that I can see sunsets from my back yard was a big plus about being where I am now, too.

When it came to butterflies, however, they just seemed to be something that happened from time to time—but that changed. Dramatically. About three years ago I joined several friends for dinner at my friend Barbara Lorenzen’s home. We all looked forward to it because Barbara’s a great cook.

I have to say, however, this time she was upstaged. It was early evening and still light when people arrived. Parking in the driveway and getting out of our cars we were all were greeted by royalty. Monarchs were everywhere!

Barbara had about six or eight mature plants in her front yard and you couldn’t walk to her front door without an escort of butterflies. The siding on her house was so full of little green chrysalis all growing butterflies, that you really couldn’t count them. There were just too many.

We were all simply amazed by it all. With garden space to fill at my place, I knew I wanted that experience again. That began a quest for me that included going to the Reuben H. Fleet Science Center in Balboa Park with my niece Emily Petranoff to see the IMAX feature on Monarch butterflies. With a 76-foot wraparound movie screen, that was really impressive. Not, however, as much as being there live.

Alas, Barbara moved. The silver lining was that I was able to dig up a couple of her plants and transplant them to my place. I bought a smaller plant at the nursery and started the next spring with three plants—then I discovered a seedpod from the one plant I did have landed nearby and I had a dozen sprouts.

What happened next was unexpected. No movie or garden book I read prepared me for it. There is one stage in the cycle of making a butterfly that seems to be a secret no one talks about. It’s the monarchs dark, imperialist side.

The cycle goes like this. The mature monarch flies over the neighborhood to discover host plants. The plants I have, and they seem to work great in San Diego, is Asclepias tuberosa, commonly known as butterfly weed. They grow to about three feet wide by three feet tall and have attractive yellow, red and mostly orange clusters of flowers. There’s also something called a butterfly plant, which will attract monarchs, too, but the butterfly weed is most common and beautiful. The monarch deposits larva on the leaf that eventually turn into caterpillars. Sometimes I forget that and the fact that there is not much that bothers these plants except monarchs. They are weeds after all.

I hate to admit my repetitive cycle, but this may happen to you too so I’ll mention it. Long before you see any caterpillars, you’ll start to notice that something is eating the leaves of your butterfly plants. That puts me back in a research mode. I’ll pull out my books and go online and reconfirm that the only thing that eats these plants is monarch butterflies. In fact, nothing can eat the caterpillars. Birds may try eating them, but quickly discover that they are indigestible. They learn to stay away.

Days after you first notice little holes in the leaves you will see a tiny quarter-inch long piece of string that has yellow and black stripes and it moves. That’s the caterpillar. Later you’ll notice that they have two black feelers that protrude from both ends of them, but at this stage that’s too small to see.

I like to start my day smiling at how much they seem to grow overnight. They grow very quickly, and this is also the beginning of that stage of development little talked about. This is the “little pigs” stage when they eat everything on the plant. If all the leaves are gone they start on the stem. If there are flowers on the plant, they’ll eat them. They eat the seed pods if you don’t save them.

After my first season of growing I did collected several seedpods and planted many the following season. At one point I had sprouted 60 new plants. Most of them, however, were clear-cut when the caterpillars evolved to pigs. Even though many plants were only 3 to 4 inches tall, over and over I discovered that I was left with what looked like a toothpick.

The ones that survived were the ones that I put on a shelf  and wrapped with breathable cloth or with plastic that shielded them from both caterpillars and butterflies wanting to deposit larva.

In other words, you never have to worry about having an empty plant. These plants are not long ignored. You’ll discover on the opposite side wondering how you can ever feed them.

I have read that there is nectar you can get for them to eat, but for me that almost seems like giving them better cutting tools or increasing their appetite. They really don’t need help.

I did try helping the first season. When I saw plants with three or four or twelve caterpillars next to a plant with no caterpillars, I decided to balance things. Now I just watch as raiding parties devour one plant and then moved next to her the next. I think they must be herd animals.

I remember trying to count how many caterpillars were on one plant once, but got up to 25 or 30 and lost track of which ones I had counted. Plus they wouldn’t sit still—and they do move fast.

In retrospect, I think the best strategy is to focus on growing your plants the first season and allowing them to get as large as possible before they are exposed to any butterflies or caterpillars.

I noticed my large plants would go from bushy and full of leaves with beautiful flowers to naked stems—but then, very quickly, the leaves grow back. Last season that cycle happened three and four times on the bigger plants. The larger plants survived that process. The smaller plants, the toothpicks, did not. Even some of the plants that were gallon-pot size didn’t come back.

Once the caterpillars get to be an inch and a half long or so they disappear and attach to just about anything, fold in half and form a lime-green chrysalis. Usually they are in that stage for two weeks—and longer when you’re watching.

One day you’ll see the shell turn clear and you can see black and sometimes orange inside of it. At that point it’s usually a matter of hours and the butterfly will come out. I noticed one like that the other day. When I first saw it in the morning it was clear so I went back and checked on it every hour or two. A couple of hours later I noticed that it had punched through the shell. Later that day when it got dark it was still hanging there drying out. Before I went to bed I went out with a flashlight and noticed it had moved about a foot away. The next day was gone and I didn’t see it at all, but now I see it in the garden every day. It was the first this season. They often take hours of fluttering around on the ground stretching and drying out before taking first flight, which is usually a short ride.

There are a few more things to know before trying this yourself, but mostly, you really don’t need to know a lot. What kind of soil do you need? Remember, they are called butterfly weeds and weeds pretty much grow where they want in every kind of soil. Start them in a pot and make sure the pots drain.

As far as pests go I’ve been concerned only with ants, which eat the chrysalis, and aphids. Here’s a remedy: I bought a yellow onion and put it in the blender with several sections of garlic. Add water and then later a tablespoon of cayenne. After that it goes in a spray bottle. Don’t forget to filter it through a coffee filter first or it will clog the spray bottle very quickly.

I have a pair of garden gloves that have a rubber surface on the palm side of the hand and when I find aphids, those orange little dot size bugs, I squish them with the glove while spraying them with the mixture. Don’t spray the caterpillars. If they are nearby I shield them with my glove and spray away.

I’ve learned to ignore the ants. At first I’d fret about where the caterpillar decided to build its chrysalis, but have learned to let go and know that not all of them are going to make it.

Okay, in the interest of full disclosure, two days ago, after discovering a chrysalis that was being eaten by ants on a canna plant, I clipped a nearby leaf from the plant that had two more chrysalis on it that were close by. Figuring they were next, and since the season is early and this is the first wave of caterpillars, I moved the leaf to another plant where it’s attached with a paperclip and a clamp. I’m weak.

What I do know is that I will see far more caterpillars than chrysalis. They hide. How can you worry about what you can’t actually see? Well, in this case anyway.

When I see ants I will use the same spray around the plant and that usually works. Generally, however, once these plants are in the ground there are ants present. The caterpillars that survive to form a chrysalis are the ones that find good spots.

One thing I want to make sure you know is this: when I first watched the IMAX movie it talked about the monarchs gathering in one spot in Mexico. What they didn’t say, or perhaps I missed, was that those are the East Coast monarchs that go to Mexico. The West Coast monarchs don’t do that.

One of the places they do go in the winter is in the Monterey area close to Asilomar. Another is just north of LA. I have also had people tell me they know of spots in San Diego where monarch are always present. I have not been able to find out if migrating is instinctual or because the temperature is simply warmer than the NW US or Western Canada that they come from.

What I do know is that the plants that these finicky eaters want to devour, literally, are becoming scarcer. Whether it’s the growth of cities or the use of pesticides in farming areas, the population of monarchs is declining.

What we know, however, is that nature tries to adapt. We also know that monarchs can migrate thousands of miles. And we know San Diego is a temperate climate warmer than some places where they winter. So why not here?

Add that all up and I think if we planted these weeds in our yards, as I do, they’ll be found and they’ll be eaten by these picky gourmet diners.

The next step, the one I’m learning now, is what plants you need to have for the butterflies to hang around. Last year when we were working on my fence I discovered dozens on a bank of lantana—at my neighbors! My Butterflies!. No loyalty. They go where they like it and they like flowers with nectar.  Fortunately it’s the plants that hummingbirds like too, i.e., cosmos, lavender and lantana—and even eucalyptus, which we have a lot of in San Diego.

Regarding longevity and habitat I had one butterfly show up all winter long this past year so I know it’s possible. It was recognizable because one wing was not full formed and more white than others so it was to pick out. It may have kept it from leaving. I’ve read that they live from 2-6 weeks, but from another source that they can live for six-months. It happens.

Wouldn’t it be great if people stepped up and supplied the host plants (asclepias tuberosa/butterfly weed) that our current environment is not providing the monarchs? For me, I’ve seen it comes down to feed them and they will come. It’s something we can do.

I hope your next step is getting some seeds either online or wherever they sell seeds. They grow like the weeds they are. Whether it’s just a summertime pleasure or we make San Diego a haven for monarchs, they are really one of those experiences you don’t want to miss.

About The Author

Steve Hays

Publisher and Editor of The Life Connection Magazine Print and Online versions.

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