Anyone who has lived in the Hamptons year round or has just stuck around beyond the Labor Day weekend knows about the flight of the monarchs. It starts in late summer as a few of them following the coastline. Then, over a period of days, the few turn to dozens, then hundreds and then thousands and hundreds of thousands as they begin their annual southerly migration down the beach.Last summer was a stark exception, though, and as we waited for the expected magical move it never occurred. Yes, there were a few here and a dozen there, but that was it. For a number of years we’d been hearing about the issues the monarchs were having in a threatened Mexican forest where they overwinter in a very small and compact area that’s only recently been revealed. But the migration back south has always been as dependable as…well, as dependable as the monarchs. Not last year.
It’s not exactly clear what’s going on, but there is remarkable movement among gardeners and naturalists to do their part in an attempt to make sure that this remarkable insect does not vanish completely. This movement revolves around the replanting and reintroduction of a weed.
That’s right, a weed.
We know from news accounts that a number of unusually cold winters in Mexico where the monarchs overwinter reduced their numbers considerably, so climate change may be one factor. There are also those who think that the butterflies have also been decimated by the use of particular types of insecticides they may be particularly vulnerable to. And then there are the huge factory farms of corn, cotton and soybeans where these crops have been genetically altered to be immune to the herbicide glyphosphate so that the farm operators can spray their entire crop to kill all the unwanted weeds but have no effect on the planted crop. And therein may lay a large part of the problem.
To understand how this might affect the monarch you have to understand this butterfly’s life cycle and then it makes nearly perfect sense.
Every year, close to the vernal equinox, all of the monarchs that have wintered at this special spot in Mexico begin to flutter anew and in huge clouds of orange and black they being their annual flight north. This year the flight began on March 13, and by March 20 the first were sighted in Texas. The exact schedule changes slightly year to year, based on the winds and rain. Once the trek starts it takes about 90 days before we see the first ones up here.
On their northern flight, monarchs need to stop and feed and reproduce. And while they are in the butterfly stage, there are a number of plants, fruits and nectars they will feed on
But when it comes to reproduction, there is only one plant that works. That plant is Asclepias. If you don’t know it by its scientific name, then you’ll know it as butterfly weed or milkweed. And yes, there are ornamental varieties that we use in the garden as well.
But, a weed being any plant that isn’t where someone wants it…it’s a weed to farmers. As they spray glyphosphate over their Roundup Ready crops from Texas to New Jersey, they’ve pretty much wiped out the milkweed. Yes, the one plant that the monarch depends on for survival.
A single monarch doesn’t begin in Mexico, fly up through Texas and continue up to the northeastern states, where it has kids who then fly south in the fall to Mexico. It’s much more complex than that. One full cycle from Mexico up north then back again involves four different generations that go through four full life stages.
Let’s say that Mary Monarch leaves Mexico in mid-March. On her way she meets Max Monarch and they mate. Mary lays her eggs on the only plant that she knows will support her brood, a milkweed–assuming she finds one. When those eggs hatch into larvae or caterpillars, they feed on the Asclepias (milkweed) foliage. After gorging for several days they then form a chrysalis or pupa that you might call a cacoon. A number of days later, the chrysalis splits open and a young Max or Mary junior emerges, takes the air and continues to fly north.
In time, somewhere along the southeastern U.S., Junior mates, and again the search is on for yet another milkweed, where the eggs are deposited. So as long as the milkweeds are available, the cycle continues until the last generation reaches the northeast or lower Canada, where the last butterfly generation feeds on a range of flowering plants. Then, as the days get shorter and cooler, the migration begins back to Mexico.
But consider this. At any point along the northern migration, if there are no milkweed plants for the developing caterpillars to feed on, the cycle comes to a sudden and abrupt stop. And if the monarchs caterpillars can’t feed, they certainly can’t develop into butterflies to continue their journey. The cycle that has been going on for untold thousands of years just plain stops.
Yes, a few monarchs will find the few remaining milkweed plants on the roadside, in abandoned lots and in some ornamental gardens. But where there might have been hundreds of millions of these critical weeds 10 years ago, there are only a fraction now. And thus, the thinking goes, only a small fraction of the monarchs. We may be witnessing the rapid collapse of a species in this part of the world.
And this, my fellow gardeners, is where you step in. You can actually help and through a few simple steps you may actually be able to do your part in saving the monarch. It’s simple: plant milkweed!
Now, if planting a weed just doesn’t sit well with your gardening genes, you can still plant Asclepias varieties that are quite attractive, native wildflowers, ornamentals and you’ll be doing your part.
Asclepias tuberosa, also known as the butterfly milkweed or butterfly weed, is not only an East End native but when planted in masses can be very attractive. It thrives in sandy soils and requires absolutely no care once it’s established. It’s a fully hardy perennial that can be grown from seed or small tubers, and most garden centers sell it as a potted perennial. An ornamental variety is also available. It is called Gay Butterflies, as the flower colors can range from oranges to yellows and near reds as opposed to the species which is more muted. A newer variety, named Hello Yellow, can also be found.
Like all of the milkweeds, the flowers of A .tubersoa form a hard-shelled seed pod in the fall. Within this shell silks develop, and attached to each silk is a single flat seed. As the pod ripens and splits open, the silks are caught in the wind and the seeds carried away. That is, unless you collect them and grow lots more plants for your garden.
Other varieties are much taller than A. tuberosa but just as tasty for the monarch caterpillars. Asclepias incarnate Cinderella has a very different habit, as it’s taller and more erect, with white flowers in late summer. It makes a good perennial for the back of the perennial border, or planted in masses.
Pam Healey at Lynch’s Garden Center tells me they will have A. tuberosa, A. incarnate and A. curassavica as potted plants as well as seeds for A. tuberosa and A. curassavica. I’m sure that other garden centers out here will have selections as well.
As the word is getting out, these plants may be harder and harder to find, and I know there’s already a short supply of seed. Plant as many as you can and learn to grow these plants from seed as well. This seems to be becoming a nationwide effort, and I’d like to see garden clubs and environmental organizations become part of this effort as well.
Send me an email and I’ll send you some great links that I’ve collected on the topic as well as links to two national organizations that are at the forefront. Do your part to save the monarchs…and keep growing.