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BLESSINGS IN BLOOM: Milkweed for the Monarch

02/14/2019 | Comments

While most gardeners are singing the winter blues in the month of February, the second month of the year is perfect for planning what to grow this spring. A well-designed perennial garden can provide many years of beauty and enjoyment. Careful selection of plant materials and thoughtful planning can result in a full season of color and maybe save a species.

An example of a species that could be saved by a well-designed garden is the Monarch butterfly. If Monarch butterflies and the threat of extinction are in the same sentence, it can never be a good thing. Planting milkweed in the garden might be one small, yet very important gesture to help save the butterfly. A lot has been written about the decreasing numbers of monarchs caused by the loss of habitat and a range of complex issues, but the upshot of the message has been for everyone to plant more milkweeds from a local to national level.

The Monarch butterfly is easily recognizable due to its characteristic orange wings with black veins and black outer margins with white spots. However, the Monarch begins its life as a tiny fertilized egg carefully placed by its mother on the underside of a milkweed leaf. After three to five days the Monarch caterpillar emerges from its egg and immediately starts to consume the milkweed leaf, which is the only food source for the caterpillar. Though the “milk” in milkweed is toxic and distasteful to many animals, the Monarch concentrates these chemicals in its body as a means to protect itself from predators. Once the caterpillar reaches about two inches in length (200 times as big as when they hatched) it forms a chrysalis, in which it makes its metamorphosis into a butterfly usually within two weeks.

Milkweed is the larval host plant of the monarch. It is the only plant that the monarch larvae will eat. Butterflies are host specific. Without milkweed, the butterfly stage of the monarch has no place to lay its eggs. Monarchs will not lay eggs on any plant except milkweed. Are you starting to understand its importance?

The good news is that milkweed plants grow well in our diocese. It is a “must” to amend the soil, choose the right place and provide sufficient water until establishment.

Milkweed is the common name for many plants in the genus, Asclepias. In Colorado, butterfly milkweed (Aescelpias tuberosa) is an attractive garden plant that does well in our area. It produces clusters of bright orange flowers with average green colored leaves.

Milkweed plants are hardy in zones 3-8. They require full sun, a lot of space and should be placed at the back of flower beds as they can grow to 3 feet tall.

While the annual flight-path of the monarch butterflies each September/October does not include Colorado airspace, we do get visitors. Maybe if we are more hospitable in providing milkweed the flight-path can swing our way and butterfly numbers will increase. Praying for a miracle will, of course, help too.

Alas, the fine print — animals usually do not eat milkweed unless good forage is insufficient. The milky white sap has a bitter taste, but livestock will eat the top, tender leaves if good food is lacking. While the fresh, green plant material is the most toxic, dried milkweed plants found in pastures retain their toxicity. Cardiac glycosides are found in the majority of milkweed species, while a neurotoxin is specific to the whorled-leaf types of milkweed found in pastures and roadside ditches. Toxicity rating is low to moderate; death is not likely unless large quantities are consumed. Sheep are most at risk but cattle, goats, horses, poultry, and domesticated pets are also at risk. The stems leaves and roots are all considered dangerous.

With careful planning, placement and care, the milkweed plant might invite the Monarch butterfly to stop by for a spell, maybe lay some eggs. It will most certainly add a splash of color year after year. Now that’s a miracle!

(Kerry Peetz is a master gardener and a member of Sacred Heart Parish in Colorado Springs.)

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