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 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.

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  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.


The wanton ways of flowers in springtime

The cosmos seems to say, "Ta da!" as it opens to the sun.

The cosmos seems to say, “Ta da!” as it opens to the sun.

I love the wanton ways of flowers in springtime. They like to open up and spread their petals when nobody is looking, but now and then on a shining morning I catch them flaunting their freshness.

They are so playful and replete with joy as they offer themselves to passing pollinators. Some make me laugh at the way they seem to sing “Ta da!” as they fling out their petals in a burst of sun-warmed enervation. There is a rhythmic dance to the way they emerge, all bright and flawless, some enticingly perfumed, dressed in their blazing colours. Even in the rain they can’t restrain themselves, unfolding more slowly, looking dewy and innocent.

Some, the peonies, unfold their petals one-by-one in a lazy sort of way. They can afford to take their time, there are so many of them. The daisy types, though, are more spontaneous, more willing to bare it all in one grand gesture. Petunias shyly un-crumple like poppies but their wrinkled petals soon turn satin smooth in the sun.

"Pick me! Pick me!" the lily begs of the bee.

“Pick me! Pick me!” the lily begs of the bee.

Tulips unfurl in a tentative way, gradually revealing their hearts to the sun until, throwing caution aside like an unwanted blanket, they spread their petals wide in abandon. Lilies do the same, stamens reaching for any passing bee. “Pick me, pick me!”

Zinnias unroll their petals more sedately; anthers slowly unbend into an upright position like dancers in the Rite of Spring.

The parabolic crocuses are very forthright in their seduction by the sun. Long before the snow has completely left the ground, the crocuses entice fingers of sunlight to reach inside, concentrating the warming rays into the centre of the flower to fuel early seed production. This is serious business for the crocus; a late heavy frost can put it out of production for the year.

This weekend, there was a heavy breeze on Saturday that carried traces of the coming spring. It felt like March, during those blood stirring days when you know that the sun will win in the end and that all the snow will soon wither and leave, shrinking and slipping away into gray puddles, its dazzling white now past history.

Today, there is a blizzard outside the city limits. People are stranded in truck stops on the highway just a stone’s throw away because the roads are sheer ice and visibility is zero. That’s part of the coming springtime, too. This is when we usually get our deadliest winter storms that can dump several feet of snow overnight and then, aided by a biting wind, fling back it at faces and unprotected spaces like a sand blaster.

But this rebellion is all for naught in the end. The winds will die. The sun will win. The snow will melt. For a time the earth will be laid bare, looking barren but only hiding its secrets: the teeming life already thrumming beneath its surface.

Gently, the warmth of the sun will penetrate the earth, stroking awake the billions of bacteria and protozoa, and fungi, the millions of nematodes, worms, beetles, grubs, slugs, ants and spiders and all the beauty and richness of the eco system that surrounds the roots of our plants. The world beneath the surface of the earth is so many times more diverse and rich than our own. No wonder the plants want to reside there. Why be concerned about mobility when everything they need is so ready-to-root? The symbiotic relationship plants have formed both below and above ground allows them to exploit the best of both worlds.

And they put it all to such wonderful use, providing us with food for the body and food for the soul.

The crocus knows how to entice fingers of sun into its centre to start seed production early.

The crocus knows how to entice fingers of sun into its centre to start seed production early.


Lupine buds ready to burst into the open.

They are bright and flawless when they emerge.

They are bright and flawless when they emerge.


A zinnia unfolds its anthers that look like dancers unbending in the Rite of Spring.

They all add food for the soul.

They all add food for the soul.