Nature Notes: Milkweed, Monarchs and You!

Close up of Purple Milkweed flowers. Copyright Jill Henderson ShowMeOz.wordpress.comShow Me Oz

As a gardener and lover of nature, I garden with butterflies and beneficial insects in mind.  Yet, for all my efforts, the one North American butterfly that I have failed to lure to my garden is the bright and beautiful Monarch.  For years I thought the failure was mine, but the truth is that these icons of the butterfly world are in dire straights and their numbers are spiraling dangerously downward.  The good news is that there is something we can all do to help them – and all their colorful kin – to flourish once again.

Most people don’t realize it, but there are two groups of monarchs: Those that hibernate along the west coast of North America and those fly up to 2,800 miles to hibernate in the Sierra Madre Mountains of Mexico.

According to researchers, both groups of monarchs are in dramatic decline. According to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), overwintering monarch populations in California shrunk from over one million individuals in 1997 to less than 60,000 individuals in 2009.  And in just the last four years, the Mexico group has lost as much as 60% of its population.

Butterflyweed (Asclepias tuberosa). Copyright Jill Henderson ShowMeOz.wordpress (1)Those numbers are frightening, to say the least, but researchers aren’t yet sure exactly what is causing the change.  If you read ten articles on this subject, you will likely come up with 10 different reasons.

Some of these reasons include loss of habitat due to deforestation, agriculture and urban sprawl; powerful insecticides and herbicides, unprecedented changes in the weather both at home and at hibernation sites, and the overall lack of host plants that provide food for both adults and their larvae.  Worst of all, if things don’t change soon, we may lose this unique species – and many, many more – in just a few short years.

So, what can we do to help conservationists save the monarch from extinction?The first thing is to stop using powerful chemical insecticides and pesticides – and not just in large-scale agriculture, either. It is imperative to stop all Four-leaved Milkweed (Asclepias) quadrifolia). Copyright Jill Henderson ShowMeOz.wordpress.comindiscriminate spraying of these chemicals around our homes, roadways, and businesses.

Secondly, communities need to invest time and money into creating habitat for our wild neighbors, including butterflies. This can be as simple as adding bird and butterfly gardens in existing parks and green-spaces or as complex as preserving or creating special wildlife habitats, particularly important in urban areas.

Lastly, everyone can help the monarchs (and other beneficials) by growing a multitude of flowering plants that provide pollen and nectar for adult butterflies.  Of course, monarch adults can obtain food from many different types of flowering plants, but they will only lay their eggs on milkweed species because it is the only plant that their larvae can eat.   Milkweed is very susceptible to herbicides, which is one reason researchers believe monarchs are in decline. This is why it is so important to cultivate as many milkweed and butterfly weed species as possible.

White Milkweed (Asclepias variegata). Copyright Jill HendersonThe good news is that there are a recorded 140 species of milkweed in North America – enough variety to keep every gardener – and every monarch – happy.

Each species of milkweed (also known collectively as butterfly weed) has its own specialized needs, but most will grow in the average garden rapidly and with little in the way of amendments.  Consider purchasing seeds of multiple Asclepius species and planting them in the wilder nooks and crannies around your landscape (urban or rural) or creating a dedicated butterfly garden featuring milkweed species.

Check out some of these Missouri natives from the Missouri Botanical Garden website article, Native Missouri Milkweeds for Monarchs, by Scott Woodbury, Curator, Whitmire Wildflower Garden, Shaw Nature Reserve.

  • Purple Milkweed The flowers of purple milkweed are pale purple to reddish purple to dark purple, with greenish or red tints. The scientific name means “becoming purple”: The flowers start off rather pale and become more intensely purplish as they mature.
  • Butterfly Weed This bright orange milkweed is a favorite nectar plant for butterflies, and the leaves are eaten by the caterpillars of monarch butterflies. One of our showiest native wildflowers, butterfly weed is also a favorite of gardeners.
  • Climbing Milkweed The brown, starlike, spreading flowers of climbing milkweed differ from those of other milkweeds, but milky sap, warty pods with silk-tasseled seeds, and the structures in the center of the flowers show its true alliance.
  • Mead’s Milkweed Mead’s milkweed, an endangered plant, once flourished in the tallgrass prairies of the Midwestern United States, including most of Missouri.
  • Whorled Milkweed (Fourleaf Milkweed) One of our earliest blooming milkweeds, whorled milkweed bears round clusters of pink or cream-colored flowers. As the common names suggest, at least some of the leaves are arranged in whorls of 4.
  • Prairie Milkweed (Tall Green Milkweed) Prairie milkweed’s full, rounded clusters of small, delicately purple-tinged flowers set it apart from other prairie milkweeds.

Something to think about for  your first spring project next year…

Until then, Happy New Year and Happy Gardening!

© 2015 Jill Henderson  Feel free to share with a link back to the original article.


AJOS-214x32813A Journey of Seasons

Filled to the brim with colorful stories, wild walks, botanical musings, and a just a pinch of “hillbilly” humor A personal and inspiring tale of homesteading in the Ozark backwoods by noted author, naturalist and plant organic gardener, Jill Henderson.

Available in the Show Me Oz Bookstore
Look inside!


Jill Henderson is an artist, author, and the editor of Show Me Oz . Her books, The Healing Power of Kitchen Herbs, The Garden Seed Saving Guide and A Journey of Seasons can be found in the Show Me Oz Bookstore.  Jill is a contributing author for Acres USA and Llewellyn’s Herbal Almanac and her work has appeared in The Permaculture Activist and The Essential Herbal.


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8 responses to “Nature Notes: Milkweed, Monarchs and You!

  1. Found you after purchasing Llewellyn’s 2015 Herbal Almanac – what an informative post! I’m planning an extensive flower and vegetable garden next Spring and looking for ways to attract butterflies and bees! Is milk weed available at most nurseries, or would I have better luck ordering seeds online?

    • Hi, Edith. So glad you stopped in to check out the blog! Welcome!
      There’s a very good chance you’ll find common milkweed (the orange kind) at local nurseries in your area, but many of the others might be more difficult to find in plant form. Give your nursery a call and ask what they plan to have for plants in the spring- they’re usually happy to help. For other species, I would check out sources of native seed in your state (conservation department and state nurseries are great places to start).

      • Thank you Jill! My local nursery is closed for the season (Small town in Canada), so I will check with them as soon as they open! 🙂

      • You’re welcome, Edith. I’m from a small town, too, so I understand the nursery being closed. 🙂 You might also ask around or search for native seed/plant growers in your area. Botanical gardens, university gardens, and places like that are always helpful. And I’m so excited for you to try some milkweeds, I searched for milkweeds native to Canada and found this extensive list from Monarch Watch (an awesome site for monarch conservation). I hope it helps you find just what you’re looking for! http://monarchwatch.org/read/articles/canweed2.htm

      • Oh thank you so much Jill!!! I am saving that link in my bookmarks!!! 🙂

      • Awesome! BTW, I just checked out your blog… very nice! I think we think alike. 🙂

      • Oh thank you!! That means so much!! 🙂 thank you so much for following! I’m a little star struck, having just read your words in a published book hahaha

  2. Now I’m blushing… thank you. You keep writing, too. It’s good for the soul.

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