Everyone is familiar with the black and orange patterned wings of the Monarch butterfly. Their four-inch wingspan, dramatic color and intricate patterns are recognizable from a distance. These tropical butterflies are not only unique in their appearance and size, but also their migration habits. Monarchs are the only butterfly known to make a two-way, 2,000 mile migration across North America throughout their life cycle.
However, recently, spying one of these graceful butterflies in your garden is becoming rare. Monarch populations have plummeted over the last few decades, influenced by many factors such as improper pesticide use, parasites and disease, climate change and loss of habitat. While it seems like a daunting task to help rebuild populations of this once common butterfly, if every gardener put aside a little corner of their garden with food and habitat just for Monarchs, these charismatic creatures just might make a comeback.
How can I help?
Every flower that provides nectar to a passing Monarch will help sustain them on their long migration across North America, but if you really want to create a safe haven in your yard for Monarchs, follow the steps below to create a welcoming and restorative Monarch paradise.
1. Select Your Site
Butterflies appreciate the shelter of established woody trees and shrubs, to provide them with protection from inclement weather conditions. However, there should still be some sunny patches in your Monarch habitat, as most of the nectar-producing plants that sustain them require sun. Being tropical butterflies, they do not tolerate cold; temperatures need to be above 55° F before adults become active. However, they also don't thrive when exposed to temperatures over 95° F. In the hot Sacramento valley, an east or southeast site provides the perfect habitat. In cooler climates, southern exposure is best.
2. Plant Native Milkweed Species
Milkweed plants (Asclepias spp.) are the host plants that adult Monarchs lay their eggs on, and the only food consumed by Monarch caterpillars. California native species are the best to plant, because their growing season is synchronized with the migration patterns of the butterflies. However, native species are usually more difficult to find.
If you can't find any native milkweed species, other milkweeds will work as an alternative. Tropical milkweed (pictured below) will still provide food for Monarch caterpillars, but it is recommended that if you are using it as Monarch habitat, that you cut it back to 6" from the ground in the winter. This encourages Monarchs continue their migration to their southern overwintering sites, rather than sticking around to breed and getting caught in the cold.
3. Plant Flowers Which Provide Nectar
While Monarch caterpillars only eat milkweed, adult Monarchs feed on the nectar of flowers, just like other pollinators. Milkweed species provide a good source of nectar, but it's best to have a variety of flowers for the butterfly buffet. Flowers which bloom in the late summer and fall are especially good for providing Monarchs with nutrition to sustain them in their long migration south for the winter. Here's what to plant in your butterfly sanctuary:
- Red, yellow, orange, pink and purple colored blossoms
- "Cluster-type" flowers that are flat-topped and made up of many small flowers with short nectar tubes
- California native flowers
- A variety of flowers which bloom successively, ensuring there is always something blooming
- Full sun flowers, butterflies like to bask in the sun while they rest and feed
Yarrow, Buddleja, Phlox, and Agastache are all good examples of flowers that butterflies enjoy.
4. Use Integrated Pest Management
You should avoid using any type of chemical in your Monarch waystation. Even less toxic chemical methods of pest control are still harmful to beneficial insects if they come into contact with them. Integrated pest management is a way of controlling the insect pests that harm your plants, with minimal impact on the environment.
5. Provide a Place for Puddling
While butterflies get most of the nutrients they need from nectar sources, they still need fresh water and minerals to thrive, which they acquire through drinking water from shallow puddles. Take a shallow tray, fill it with coarse sand and small pebbles, then nestle it into the native soil of your habitat. Keep the tray evenly moist.
You don't have to plant an acre of milkweed to help the Monarchs. In fact, it is better to have many small sanctuaries spread across North America for Monarchs to visit on their long migratory journey. Even just following one of the steps above will help contribute to restoring the population of this once prevelant pollinator.