Milkweed & Monarchs
When we think about monarch butterflies, we often picture their gorgeous color, their amazing life cycle and their incredible and mysterious migration. However, what we often overlook is the real star of the show: milkweed. Without milkweed, monarchs cannot become that beautiful orange and black butterfly, cannot complete that amazing life cycle, and cannot embark on that amazing journey.
Milkweed is not a single species of plant, it is a collective name for many species of milkweed plants in the genus Asclepias. There are over 75 species of milkweed in North America, all differing in one way or another (See Milkweed ID). However, almost every one (with the exception of butterfly weed) has something in common: the toxic, milky sap that protects monarch caterpillars when they consume it along with the leaves. Since plants in the Asclepias genus are considered a monarch's "larval host plant," it is imperative that we protect these plants in order to help bring back our rapidly declining monarch populations. See how to help milkweed and monarchs below.
Milkweed plants feed caterpillars throughout all five instar stages and is an excellent source of nectar for adult monarch butterflies, not only during the season, but also during migration. In short, milkweed is absolutely critical.
How to Help Monarchs
1) STOP USING PESTICIDES! Pesticides are a huge problem, however, damage caused by them can easily be reversed, simply by ceasing to use them right now. Researchers from The Xerces Society of Invertebrate Conservation (Xerces) have conducted research and sampled plants both in the wild and in nurseries. Their findings are startling and we, as humans, should take notice. Xerces biologists said:
" Pesticides were detected in every sample, even at sites with little or no pesticide use based on information from landowners"
Pesticides are often used by farmers, property managers, gardeners and homeowners to kill milkweed plants or other species they feel are a "nuisance." Keep in mind, though, that no milkweed = no monarchs.
2) Plant milkweed that is native to your region. Never plant tropical, or Mexican milkweed (Aslepias curassavica). You can find your region's native milkweed species by visiting:
3) Plant a pollinator garden with native nectar plants for adult butterflies. It is important to supply monarchs with flowering plants in the spring as well as in the fall. Monarchs need a food source during their fall migration to get them to their overwintering grounds, therefore, keep in mind those fall bloomers when you plant your pollinator garden. Other pollinators and birds will benefit as well, so you will have many unique visitors to your garden along with monarchs! You can find native nectar species that are just right for your garden by visiting: