Eye On Nature

Got Milkweed?
Grow it to reap a harvest of monarch butterflies.

by Kathy Sena

There is one North American monarch butterfly for each person living in the U.S. But chances are your family hasn’t seen one lately. In fact, we’ve been seeing fewer and fewer of these vivid or-ange-and-black beauties for decades, largely due to urban sprawl, pesticides, drought and disease.

To make matters worse, unusual weather patterns in recent years have severely altered the vegetation cover along the monarch’s migration routes, according to Live Monarch Foundation (www.livemonarch.org).

“With monarch numbers now alarmingly low, scientists worry the beautiful insects may be less able to rebound from future crises when they return to spring and summer breeding grounds in the U.S. and southern Canada,” reports Science World magazine.

Raise an Online Butterfly

See www.livemonarch.com/adopt.htm to learn how your family, or your child’s class at school, can participate in a free, 30-day program to “raise” an online butterfly.

First, you’ll name your butterfly. Then you’ll receive an e-mail update every few days with a link to see your egg become a caterpillar, a pupa and, finally, a beautiful monarch butterfly.

The e-mails contain lots of kid-friendly information along with photos that show each stage of the soon-to-be butterfly’s development.

This is a great program to participate in while you’re waiting for those milkweed seeds to grow. By the time the plants are ready to attract butterflies, your family will be monarch experts!

How Kids Can Help
Fortunately, we can all help bring back this butterfly, says Christopher Singer, founder of the Live Monarch Foundation. “The milkweed plant is the sole food source for monarch caterpillars, and the female monarch butterfly must lay her eggs on the plant,” explains Singer.

Without it, the caterpillars will perish. But a monarch butterfly can smell milkweed from an impressive 20 miles away. So the foundation’s aim is to help people plant milkweed seeds throughout North America.

More than 100 species of milkweed grow in the U.S. and more than 200 different species grow worldwide. But one in particular is best for monarchs. Singer says the foundation prefers a variety called tropical milkweed, which grows quickly and easily and is popular with female monarchs for egg laying.

Milkweed’s nectar also entices other varieties of butterflies, such as painted ladies, American ladies, red admirals, fritillaries and hairstreaks. (An added bonus: Milkweed’s nectar also draws hummingbirds to the garden.)

Making a Difference
“Our goal is to strengthen the 3,000-mile migration route of the monarch butterfly across North America,” says Singer, who remembers growing up in Pennsylvania in an area filled with monarchs. “One seed can make a difference.”

The foundation is making it easy for families and schools to help. Just send a self-addressed, business-sized envelope with a 41-cent stamp to receive seeds and instructions for raising milkweed and monarchs in your community. While the seeds are free, a suggested $2 donation will help cover packaging, printed information and program costs. Send to: Live Monarch Foundation - Seeds, 3003-C8 Yamato Rd. #1015, Boca Raton, FL 33434

Seeds also can be ordered online. The minimum online donation is $3 to cover transaction fees, postage and handling. You’ll also receive printed monarch-butterfly lifecycle information and care instructions for milkweed and your soon-to-be-seen monarch eggs, caterpillars, pupae and butterflies.

During the past five years, the foundation has distributed more than 6 million milkweed seeds and has released more than 13,000 new, healthy monarch butterflies into the wild. With the help of participants, thousands more butterflies have been released into backyards across America.

Will It Overrun Your Garden?

Milkweed is not a true weed or terribly invasive like kudzu. Typically it will grow only in newly disturbed soil.

Milkweed usually needs help to spread and is easy to remove or transplant from unwanted areas. Milkweed lives only one or two seasons.

Cut-back milkweed will continue to flush with new growth creating a fuller, bush-like mound of foliage that is the prime habitat  for monarch caterpillars. These caterpillars can only eat milkweed and pose no threat to other plants.

Easy To Grow
The milkweed seeds we send can grow almost anywhere in North America,” says Singer. When you are ready to plant, follow these instructions:

Place the seeds 1/8-inch below the soil surface using a deep pot, since most milkweed plants have long roots. Don’t plant them too deep, because they need plenty of light and warmth to germinate and grow. Planting in an area where the temperature is about 70 degrees is ideal.

Keep the seedlings moist for the first three weeks after they sprout, then transplant them to larger containers with good soil if necessary.

You can lightly fertilize them once a week after the seedling stage, using a regular flower fertilizer.

Cutting off the top of the plant creates more stalks and more leaves.

It takes about two months before the plant is large enough for caterpillars to eat. More detailed instructions will be provided with your seeds.

Milkweed seeds grow easily, says Singer, making this a good project for younger kids who want to start their own butterfly garden. “Children as young as preschoolers are taking great pride in helping the monarchs return,” he says. “It’s exciting for a child to be able to say ‘I can make a difference. I’m part of the earth.’”

Kathy Sena is a freelance writer specializing in family issues.