Record rains brought a deluge of painted lady butterflies to California last winter. That’s the good news. The bad news is that the uncharacteristically wet weather didn’t have the same impact on the state’s dwindling monarch population.
According to the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation, “California’s monarch butterfly numbers are at an all-time low, having declined more than 85 percent from 2017,” said Newsweek. “This sudden drop comes after years of steady decline: A massive 97 percent of monarch butterflies have already disappeared since the 1980s. Back then, 10 million monarchs wintered in California. This year, the Xerces Society counted just 28,429.”
Experts say we could be looking at extinction of the species within the next two decades, largely because of diminishing landscapes and pesticides—if nothing is done. And that’s where humans come in. If you’re already looking to do some planting in your garden this spring, consider milkweed.
“Monarch butterflies making their way back to North America from their winter habitat in Mexico follow a well-marked trail,” said Gardener’s Supply Company. “These striking orange-and-black butterflies are looking for one thing: milkweed (asclepias). And when you plant milkweed in your garden, it's like rolling out a welcome mat for monarchs.”
There are plenty of plants that provide nectar for monarchs (and hummingbirds), such as:
• Agastache ‘Ava’
• Mexican Sunflowers
• Brazilian Verbena
• Dwarf Butterfly Bushes
But the key difference that makes milkweed so crucial to monarchs is that its leaves “are the only food monarch caterpillars eat,” said Gardener’s Supply Company. “Monarchs butterflies lay their eggs on milkweed plants so the tiny caterpillars will have access to food the moment they hatch. The milkweed plant provides all the nourishment the monarch needs to transform the Monarch caterpillar into the adult butterfly.”
You can find milkweed that thrive in nearly any climate and sun conditions. But it's critical to choose the right type depending on your setting, and your goals.
“When planting milkweed in your garden, it’s important to choose a species of milkweed that’s native to your region whenever possible,” said Savvy Gardening. “Thankfully, there are several milkweed species that have a broad native range and are suitable for planting across much of North America.”
Savvy Gardening has a good overview of preferred species of milkweed for different settings, including:
• Swamp Milkweed—It grows in saturated soils, but also “grows just fine in well-drained garden soil. It’s clump forming, so unlike some other milkweed species, it doesn’t take over the garden with spreading roots.”
• Common Milkweed—What used to be everywhere is less common today as a result of pesticides. “The large, round globes of common milkweed flowers are a favorite of many pollinators. But, this plant comes with a warning: It is an extremely aggressive spreader, forming large colonies that spread not just by seed, but also by underground roots called rhizomes. You’ll want to give common milkweed plenty of room.”
• Purple Milkweed—This can be harder to find, and also attracts bees.
• Butterfly Weed—Unique for its orange flowers, “Butterfly weed doesn’t like to be transplanted, so starting from seed may prove more fruitful, though it can take years for a plant to go from seed to flower.”
• Showy Milkweed—So named because “the flower clusters of showy milkweed look like groups of pointed stars” and has “spiky, pinky-purple blooms.”
• Whorled Milkweed—This species of milkweed “has a soft, feathery appearance, and since it tops out at about 3 feet in height, it makes a great addition to a perennial border. The flowers of this species are a soft white with just a hint of pink at their centers.”