Butterfly gardens do not discriminate! All butterflies are welcome and encouraged to visit.
This spring however, one butterfly, the Monarch, needs a little extra care and encouragement. Monarch populations are low and as the spring migration progresses, we can extend a special welcome to Monarchs by making sure that the nectar plants they favor are available in our gardens.
Pollinator Partnership has four brochures listing nectar plants that are favored by Monarchs as they migrate along the East Coast. Each brochure is specific to a certain part of the eastern migration route and can serve as a guide to direct gardeners towards which nectar plants should be in bloom when Monarchs pass through. The guides remind us to also plant milkweed which is used as a nectar plant as well as for caterpillar rearing.
No time to get ready for the spring migration? The guides also list nectar plants that will be blooming during the fall migration. Plants put in the ground this spring, should be flowering nicely by fall, ready for Monarchs as they head towards Mexico.
The Pollinator Parthership guides start in the Green Zone for Florida and parts of Georgia. The Orange Zone is continues with plant suggestions for some of Georgia, North Carolina, and South Carolina. The Blue Zone covers part of North Carolina and Virginia. And finally, the Yellow Zone covers the time from mid-May through mid-June when the Monarchs pass through part of Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Massachusetts.
Not only will the nectar plants suggesting in these guides appeal to Monarchs but to many other butterflies and pollinators as well.
Monarch caterpillar on Tropical Milkweed
Planting milkweed for Monarchs is one of the important first steps in starting a butterfly garden this spring.
Once you have decided to plant milkweed, the next step is to choose which type of milkweed will be best for your site. Monarch Joint Venture has a brochure that details the milkweed species that are native to the central United States. Some of the milkweed species in the brochure can be hard to find in local nurseries but are worth searching for.
If you have not already started your own native milkweed plants from seed, the milkweed variety that you plant this year will depend on what is available at plant nurseries. While there are about 100 species of milkweed native to the United States, very few are commercially available. Swamp Milkweed is often found for sale, as is Butterfly Milkweed.
In many parts of the United States, Tropical Milkweed is the milkweed most commonly found for sale. Not native to the United States, it is an attractive plant with bright red or yellow flowers. It is easy to grow from seed and is the always the first milkweed in my garden to have Monarch caterpillars happily munching away on its leaves. If started from seed in spring, it could be late summer before flowers arrive but in the meantime it will be a source of tender milkweed leaves that are very attractive to egg laying Monarchs. Many years, my stand of tropical milkweed has very few flowers because the plants are eaten down to the stalk by hungry Monarch caterpillars.
Many butterfly gardeners feel that Tropical Milkweed is a problematic milkweed due to the Monarch parasite Ophryocystis elektroscirrha (OE). The parasite is transferred as a spore, moving from milkweed to milkweed attached to the adult Monarch’s abdomen. The buildup of this parasite in Monarchs can limit their life span over time. In parts of the southern United States where Tropical Milkweed is grown as a perennial, to avoid a buildup of OE spores it is suggested that Tropical Milkweed be grown as an annual (by removing plants each year), cut back to the ground once or twice a year, or not grown at all.
Find more about milkweeds on nababutterfly.com’s Monarchs and Milkweed page.
Max Munoz, Grounds Manager at National Butterfly Center, presents plant of the month for March. Each month a differant butterfly garden plant native to the Lower Rio Grande Valley, Texas is highlighted. March’s plant is milkweed and like Max says “plant it and they will come.”
Monarch egg on milkweed
There has never been a more important time to help Monarch populations! By planting milkweed, you can improve the chances that Monarchs will find their catperpillar food plant during the upcoming migration. A few of the most common milkweeds are highlighted on NABA’s Monarchs and Milkweed pages.