The Monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus) is an remarkable insect, which is famous for its incredible migratory habits in addition to being admired for its great beauty.
But sadly the Monarch’s numbers have been dropping fast due to a combination of climate change, habitat destruction, the use of pesticides, and the lack of foodplants for its caterpillars, which could only eat species at the Milkweed family (Asclepiadaceae). However, this means that gardeners in almost any country where Monarchs live can help preserve the species by growing these attractive plants in their gardens.
Monarch’s migrate in spring all the way from Mexico and the Southern States of North America up as far as Canada and then replicate this in a long return journey when they fly south to overwinter.
There are a number of species of Milkweed that grow both in the cooler north and in the tropical heat of the south. Female Monarchs do not care what the type is at least as long as it is an Asclepias it will do fine as somewhere to put its eggs and feed its striped caterpillars.
Milkweed will grow well in large flowerpots or in massive windowboxes if you’ve got no access to a proper garden, and, of course, that the foodplant can be grown in containers on a roof-garden or balcony.
Luckily, in response to an increasing awareness of the plight of this beautiful but endangered insect, millions of people are doing what they can to help and there are now very many websites that can be easily found by searching online that will provide Milkweed seeds. Some of these sites also supply small ready-germinated plants, and many others have a vast array of Milkweed species to select from. There are even sites that supply seeds free of charge as long as you send a SASE.
Monarch caterpillars are very greedy and eat a lot of leaves. They will even have the flowers and seed pods, although fortunately the plants will often sprout again. The more Milkweed plants you grow the more caterpillars you will have the ability to support.
To watch the stages of the Monarch’s lifecycle is a wonderful experience as you find the striped striped caterpillars eventually change into jade-green chrysalises before their final transformation into the glorious winged adult. Just before they hatch another true miracle happens because the black and red of the newly-formed wings get stronger and stronger in colour and can be seen clearly through the transparent wing instances of the chrysalis.
To see this occur in your own garden brings a real sense of having done something positive to help one of Mother Nature’s most amazing creatures to survive. If you have loads of flowers growing the chances are that the adult Monarchs will stay a little while too. If they do, it is as if they’re saying thank you!