First monarch

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This monarch spent much of the morning checking out the milkweed plants in my garden and finally settled on this clump of orange butterflyweed (Asclepias tuberosa). The white flowers are daisy fleabane (Erigoren), a native annual.

We used to see a lot of monarchs in our garden: in July, they’d come to lay eggs on the milkweed, and in September members of the next generation would stop to nectar on the asters and liatris as they migrated south. On a warm, still autumn day, we might see a dozen on a single plant. But in recent years their numbers have dwindled. I’ve seen perhaps one in the past two years.

This morning the monarch you see here spent at least an hour in the backyard looking for milkweed–both A. tuberosa and A. incarnata are in bloom. When monarchs look for milkweed, they hover over or barely touch each plant. If it’s not milkweed, they move on immediately; if it is, they seem to check it out carefully. lighting on different parts of the plant, sometimes nectaring if it’s in bloom. I think this individual finally decided to lay eggs. Take a look at the photo below: she curves her body beneath the plant as many butterflies do when they deposit eggs, although I’ve never seen a monarch do this in a flower cluster before. Usually they choose a leaf. But you can bet I’ll be checking this plant for pupae.

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News roundup

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A butterfly garden can be as small as three square feet or as big as a thousand acres, as long as it’s a pesticide-free planting of native perennials and grasses on a sunny site.

You can tell that native plants are going mainstream when CBS News does a story about monarch butterflies and habitat loss.

Mark Bittman is always interesting, whether he’s giving us recipes or informing us about the intersection of food and the environment. Most recently he showed that Round-Up (glyphosphate), the “harmless” and “short-acting” herbicide that’s widely used in commercial agriculture and home gardens, is most likely a carcinogen.

And if you wanted even more proof that reality is more complicated than it seems, take a look at PBS’s documentary about plant communication. It certainly made me think about pruning in a whole new light. (Ouch!)

A glimmer of hope for monarchs?

The New York Times reported last week that monarch populations in Mexico increased this year over last (which had the lowest count on record). In several previous posts I’ve described the monarch’s complicated life cycle and intricate relationship with milkweed. The Times article succinctly states the several causes of the species’s recent and precipitous population decline:

The orange-and-black butterflies are suffering from loss of milkweed habitat in the United States, illegal logging in Mexico and climate change.

So maybe there’s some hope. If you would like to help by planting milkweed this year, you might want to start with plants, not seeds, because milkweeds take three years to bloom from seed. And do not plant tropical (annual) milkweed, Asclepias curassavica, which is not native to this region and screws up the butterflies’ life cycle by blooming at the wrong time. Instead, buy plants of one or more of these easy-to-grow and very beautiful native species:

Red or swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata): 3-5′ tall, pink flowers June-august, full sun, not fussy about soil

Swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata)

The rosy-pink flowers of red or swamp milkweed, the tallest of the natives.

Common milkweed (A. syriaca): up to 4′ tall, lavender flowers June-August, full sun, not fussy about soil

Common milkweed. Image copyright UMass Extension.

Orange butterflyweed (A. tuberosa): 2-3′ tall, orange flowers June-August, full sun, prefers dry soil

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Orange butterflyweed, the lowest growing of our native milkweeds, prefers a dry, sunny site.

Loving monarchs to death

The lead story in today’s Science Times concerns a new threat to monarchs: too much love. It seems that people in northern areas are planting milkweed for monarchs, which is great, but some are planting tropical milkweed species instead of our native temperate zone species. Finding milkweed at the wrong time of year, the monarchs breed out of season, leading to reproductive failure and high rates of disease. Nature is complicated.

If you plant milkweed for monarchs, stick to native species, such as orange butterflyweed (Asclepias tuberosa), which blooms in June, is very tolerant of dry sites, and is shown here with bergamot (Monarda fistulosa)

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or red milkweed (A. incarnata), which blooms June-July and is taller and more moisture tolerant

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or common milkweed (A. syriaca), which has large, leathery leaves and can still be found growing wild in our area.

Photo by Rachel Vannette

News about monarch butterflies (possibly hopeful)

“The onslaught of chemical agriculture … is altering the entire food chain,” said Lincoln Brower, a research professor of biology at Sweet Briar College in Virginia and one of the world’s top experts on the monarch. “I think the extraordinary, rapid decline of the monarch butterfly is the canary in the coal mine.”

That quote can be found in today’s LA Times in an article about a petition from over 100 scientists to the leaders of the United States, Canada, and Mexico. The petitions asks the three heads of state to include discussions about ways to save the monarch in their upcoming NAFTA summit. Specifically, it suggests that both the United States and Canada better manage roadsides to protect and preserve native plants. Mexico is attempting to stop illegal logging in the forests the monarchs use for their winter roosts, but up north, along the migration route, more and more milkweed is disappearing all the time, especially now that farmers are growing corn that’s genetically modified to resist herbicides. This allows for increased use of herbicides, with the resulting destruction of the wildflowers, including the milkweed plants the monarchs need for their caterpillars. (For a description of the monarch’s life cycle and an explanation of its reliance on milkweed, see this blog post.

Read more about the monarch in previous posts on this blog and on the website of the World Wildlife Fund and Monarch Watch. WWF has also written an open letter to the three leaders, asking them to address this issue at their upcoming summit. And of course, you might consider emailing the White House about the issue. But do it quickly–the NAFTA summit is next week.

And of course, you can plant some lovely, carefree milkweed, like this orange butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa)  in a sunny spot yourself. If you do, you’re almost sure to see monarchs in future summers. If they don’t go extinct.

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Missing monarchs

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Today’s NY Times Sunday Review section carried an eye-opening article about the migration of monarch butterflies–or rather, the fact that the migration has almost collapsed. See also this previous post about the details of the migration to understand why it really is a problem if pesticides and genetically modified crops result in the disappearance of milkweed.

Add milkweed to the list of plants you plan to order next spring. The picture above shows a closeup of the flowers of orange butterflyweed, Asclepias tuberosa. It’s a drought-tolerant species that needs full sun, grows 2-3 feet tall, and blooms in June and July. And, of course, attracts butterflies by the score. Another lovely and easy-to-grow species is swamp or red milkweed, Asclepias incarnata. It likes moist soil (although it does just fine in my dry, sandy soil) and full sun, grows up to 4 feet tall, and produces lovely pink flowers, also in early summer. Pink or orange–take your pick.

More about milkweed

In a previous post, I described two lovely species of milkweed (Asclepias) that I grow and explained the relationship between milkweed and monarch butterflies. But the ecology of milkweed is much more complicated than the simple equation of milkweed = monarchs. Lots of other critters are dependent on milkweed as well. There are milkweed bugs, milkweed beetles, and milkweed aphids, to name just a few, and all feed on milkweed and nothing but milkweed. All these critters can safely consume the cardiac glycosides in all parts of the milkweed plant. All have bright orange coloration so that their predators are warned away.

I’ve seen very few monarchs this season. Usually many arrive to lay eggs on the milkweed leave in July; this year I saw only one. Loss of wintering habitat in Mexico may be the problem. So may a dramatic increase in pesticide use.

As soon as i started growing milkweed, the milkweed bugs arrived. They perch on the seedpods as they form and destroy the developing seeds inside. Here’s one on a butterflyweed (A. syriaca) pod:

Milkweed bug feeding on seedpod of butterflyweed (A. syriaca).

As you see, there’s a low level of infestation this year. Some years all the pods on all the plants are completely covered with bugs. The seeds inside the pods never develop. But then guess what happens? The plants hold some pods in a kind of suspended state–the pods remain tiny. As soon as the bugs complete their life cycle and die off, the plants then grow and develop those seed pods. Pretty amazing, isn’t it? It happened just last year, when the infestation was particularly bad. I think my plants are enjoying a low point in the milkweed bug population cycle this year–generally a population will reach a high point, crash, and the gradually recover.

Milkweed pods, as you can see, have an unusual (and very graceful, I think) shape. When the seeds are ripe, the pod turns brown and splits open bottom to top, and the seeds gradually waft out on the breeze, each one propelled by a tiny parachute of milkweed down. Here’s one of the first red milkweed (A. tuberosa) pods to open this year:

Asclepias incarnata pod opening.

The seeds leave the pod one by one, slowly and gracefully drifting away. This undoubtedly increases the probability that they will land away from the parent plant. Plants have all kinds of strategies for spreading their seeds, but this is one of the loveliest I know.