The plight of the monarch butterfly

The monarch butterfly needs saving. 

A monarch caterpillar, fat with milkweed.

A monarch caterpillar, fat with milkweed.

 

The sound of satisfied munching is clearly audible as a fat caterpillar eats its way along a milky milkweed leaf. This voracious critter seems of a single mind: eat, eat, eat! Its striped coat of chartreuse, charcoal and creamy white is starkly beautiful against the gray-green foliage.

Two weeks later, a flash of brilliant orange wings, rimmed with black, captures the sun and reflects its light as it dances among the flowers. The monarch butterfly is blessing our garden.

Just a few years ago, the light-as-air butterflies were so populous that their collective weight broke the branches of the fir trees they roosted on in their Mexican winter home. In 1996, swarms of the insects covered 44.5 acres in Mexico’s protected Oyamel Forest Park. Last year their numbers had dwindled drastically; the butterflies covered a mere 1.65 acres.

The monarch population has tended to fluctuate over time, but the trend recently has been to ever diminishing numbers. Many factors are to blame: illegal logging in Mexico destroying their winter home, cold weather and late springs, a drought in Texas reducing migrants up the west coast, but most significantly, a dwindling supply of milkweed growing along their migratory routes and at their final destination. About 60 percent of this once abundant plant has disappeared from the margins of fields and roadways thanks to herbicide spraying for genetically modified crops, which are bred to be resistant to the chemicals. Non-resistant, natural plants such as milkweed are collateral damage, disappearing from their already squeezed native habitat.

Milkweed is the only plant where the female monarch butterfly will lay her eggs because it is the only plant the emerging caterpillars will eat. This may be because toxins in the milkweed’s milky sap also provide the insects with protection against many predators. Without milkweed, there will be no monarchs.

A flutter of monarchs on their favourite flower: goldenrod.

A flutter of monarchs on their favourite flower: goldenrod. Photo by Arlene Dahl.

Milkweed is also a wonderful plant with beautiful flowers that will enhance any perennials patch. 10 Neat Things about Milkweed.

It is not only milkweed that the toxic crop sprays eradicate. Wildflowers of all types are among the other casualties. Wildflowers supply the nectar that sustains the adult butterflies. If the monarch population is to be maintained, the caterpillars and butterflies need both milkweed and wildflowers to survive.

We can help by planting the right things. Adult monarch butterflies love to sup nectar from flowers such as phlox, goldenrod, penta, lantana, liatris, gaillardia, bee-balm, sedum, daylilies, yarrow, mint, purple coneflower, black-eyed Susan, red clover, verbena, asters, zinnias, Joe Pye weed, ox eye daisies, columbine, cardinal flower, honeysuckle and the pretty little grey-headed coneflower with its golden rays to name just a few (the glamorous hot hothouse bedding plants don’t offer much nectar). You can also put out overripe, mushy bananas, oranges and bits of watermelon to provide a dining table for the butterflies. Plant flowers such as sedum and zinnias bloom that late in the year. This is important for the last generation of butterflies, providing a rich source of nectar so they can build up a good storage of fat to begin their migratory journey back to Mexico.

A monarch visits the garden with a flash of brilliant orange wings.

A monarch visits the garden with a flash of brilliant orange wings.

Hot topic at Summit

Not long ago, a group of concerned Canadians brought forward the issue of the declining monarchs to the international stage and the President of Mexico responded by declaring that his country would deal with the illegal logging in Oyamel Park, but that it was up to America and Canada to deal with the crop spraying and the Monsantos-type companies that are responsible for the GMO crops and the chemical sprays that keep the crops insect-free.

The issue was raised again at the recent Canada, Mexico, United States summit and the three leaders pledged to strike a task force to devise a plan. “We have agreed to conserve the monarch butterfly as an emblematic species of North America which unites our three countries,” Mexico’s Peña Nieto said.

Good news, but while they deliberate, what else can be done?

Order a subscription. Get FREE Milkweed seeds.

At Pegasus Publications and through our Local Gardener magazines, we have decided to pitch in and do what can be done to make sure the butterflies have a place to land and set up housekeeping when they arrive back here this spring. We are urging everyone we know to plant milkweed in their gardens as a start.

We have created a Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/SaveTheMonarchButterfly where people can compare notes and share where they have seen butterflies or caterpillars this spring and summer.

We have also created a blog about the butterflies and we invite guest writers to join us in telling stories about their experiences with these wonderful creatures. You can get involved here. http://savethemonarchbutterfly.wordpress.com/

I am talking about the butterflies on my radio show on CJOB Sunday mornings at 8:00 and we are carrying material in our other magazines and publications. We are also looking for partners to help us get the word out. This spring, we will have displays and seeds at the many garden shows we attend. We are also waiting for Save the Monarch bracelets that many of our garden centre friends and associates are planning to sell on behalf of the butterflies as a fundraiser so we can buy more seeds to give away.

For every subscription purchased to one of our magazines and we will donate a package of milkweed seeds FREE. Just go to my website at www.localgardener.net  to order a subscription to the magazine of your choice. If you already have a subscription, order a copy of The Book of10 Neat Things and we will send you the FREE milkweed seeds when we send the book.

Our hope is that we can convince many, many Canadians to plant milkweeds and make a difference to these amazing animals. You can learn more about them here. 10 Neat things about Monarch Butterflies.

The plants themselves are beautiful and the flowers are very impressive both as cut flowers and as dried. Children are enthralled by the life cycle of the butterfly – who wouldn’t be thrilled to watch the magic of this butterfly emerging from its transparent chrysalis, then slowly unfolding and spreading it wings to dry? And it is hard not to be inspired by the tale of their brave journey south to their winter home — sometimes they have to fly 3,000 miles to reach their ultimate destination. About 10 per cent, we are told, even survive long enough to make the return journey, though most of the spring visitors are the third generation of the butterfly that left your home garden last fall.

One of my staff recently asked me, “Why is it so important to save these butterflies?” The answer is simple: all things are connected and what happens to one thing happens to all the rest.

Or as someone else said so eloquently:

“This we know – the Earth does not belong to man — man belongs to the Earth. This we know. All things are connected like the blood which unites one family. All things are connected.

“Whatever befalls the Earth — befalls the sons of the Earth. Man did not weave the web of life — he is merely a strand in it. Whatever he does to the web, he does to himself.”

– Ted Perry, Screenwriter, 1971, interpreting and expanding upon the words of Chief Seattle from speech that was made in 1854.

The female monarch butterfly is lighter in colour than the male.

The female monarch butterfly is lighter in colour than the male.

 

New for the garden this Spring

Where I pore over catalogues and dream of gardens to come.

I have been searching the seed and growers’ catalogues to find out what’s new and hot this year. There is a lovely petunia called . . . well, it doesn’t matter what it’s called, because the growers will all have their own names for what is essentially the same plant. But watch for this pretty flower with a yellow base merging to a flush of pink and with pink margins on its petals.

What to do with tangerine.

It may not be the star of the show, though. Growers will be offering very intense colours this year, with blacks and dark, dark blues which they are showing contrasted with orange and tangerine. Tangerine has been named colour of the year by the Pantone people.

Now orange or tangerine is one of those colours you either love or despise. In spite of market manipulation, gardeners tend to have their own ideas and many of us are unhappy when we can’t find our favourite varieties because the Colour Council, or some other self-appointed arbiter of our taste, has decreed otherwise.

In spite of this, there is a lot to choose from. The breeders have been doubling everything in sight and, even though cosmos is probably the most perfect single flower in the world, it has now been doubled and re-doubled and I have to admit that the result is pretty alluring.

What else has been doubled? Osteospermum, for heavens sake!  The result is a plant with a fluffy centre replacing the stunning blue centres that were their main claim to fame in the past. Helenium, gaillardia and poppies are on the doubles list. I am sure there is more.

At the Essen Plant show in Germany, I am told they were featuring fluorescently coloured cacti in eye-blinding pinks, yellows and aquas. Succulents of all kinds are very much in vogue. The idea of living walls, both indoors and out, has captured imaginations and they are everywhere, sometimes utilizing a single variety such as ivy or mixing it up with a variety of tropicals or herbs.

But here at home, my garden has its own mind about fashion and somehow it never quite comes off the way it does on the garden fashion pages – but I am content just the same.

(Photos: Osteospermum; Hellenium; Cosmos; Poppy – Peony)