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Saturday, November 5, 2016


As I write this, monarch butterflies are pouring into Mexico and southern California.  What a journey!  In four generations, they spread across North America with the last generation making the flight south where they collect in colonies in their winter roosting sites.  They were slowed by strong southerly winds produced by the storm systems coming in off of the east coast, but they are making it home now. 

Here's hoping the monarchs have a good winter.  Early this past Spring they suffered a deadly freeze and it is estimated that 1.5 million butterflies were killed, including half of one of the largest colonies.  As you know, monarchs were already struggling and the Spring freeze was a devastating blow.  Now they need our help more than ever.


At their roosts in early Spring, monarchs get busy mating and then take off north to look for the only host plant they prefer, milkweed.  The female typically lays only one egg.  The egg hatches into a larva or caterpillar.  These brightly colored eating machines munch away at the milkweed plant.  The caterpillar then becomes a pupa.  It pupates by creating a chrysalis or shell where it hangs from a leaf until it finally emerges as an adult monarch.  The process of metamorphosis takes approximately one month. Mine is a very brief description of a very complex process but much more information can be found at the University of Minnesota's monarch site.  

Feeding on nectar from a sedum blossom


It is as simple as planting a nectar plant, a milkweed plant, and a plant that attracts.  Purple coneflower, common milkweed, and Tithonia Torch (Mexican sunflower) would be perfect.  A few additional plants are listed below, broken down by category. You may already have some of these plants in your yards and flower beds.  A number of these are native species and easy to grow.

MILKWEED - host plants - This is the only place where an adult monarch will lay its eggs and the larvae that hatch feed on the plant.

Common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca)
Swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata)
Butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa)

An interesting note about milkweed is that it contains a toxin called cardenolides.  The larvae are able to consume the toxin safely and it is thought that this toxin protects the caterpillar and adult monarch from predators – a toxicity also indicated by their bright colors!

Young common milkweed, tall with large leaves providing
 lots of foraging for the caterpillars - first choice of monarchs

Swamp milkweed in bloom, second favorite of monarchs

Butterfly weed, not a monarch favorite, but a compact host with lovely flowers

Milkweed pod burst

Where there is milkweed there are milkweed bugs 
and they are not a problem, no squishing necessary

Milkweed bugs feed exclusively on the seeds inside the pods

General Nectar Plants - attractors - these plants feed the adult monarchs:

Asters (perennial)
Hyssop (Agastache ruposa or feniculum)
Butterfly bush – only sterile varieties of buddleia
Chaste Tree (Vitex)
Red Hot Poker (Knophofia)
Yarrow (Achillea)
Indian Blanket (Gaillardia pulchella)
Purple Coneflower (Echinacea purpurea)
Joe Pye Weed (Eupatorium purpureum)
Scarlet Sage (Salvia coccinea)
Mexican Sunflower (Tithonia)
Zinnia (Zinnia elegans) or any zinnia
Dahlia Mix

Butterfly bush can get huge but they also take pruning very well
and pollinators love them

Coneflower, native, hardy and drought resistant

Young Mexican sunflower, a tall plant with large dahlia-like blooms
in vivid red or red orange – a key monarch attractor!


In July, I had the opportunity to attend a Jefferson County (KY) Master Gardeners Association Lessons Learned tour at a home that featured a monarch/pollinator garden.  One of the most important things that occurred to me while walking about and observing the overall design of the garden was that the host and nectar plants had been casually incorporated among other existing and favorite annuals, perennials and bushes throughout the yard.  What a relief! Being extremely picky, I had turned placement and spacing into rocket science. 

In designing a brand new pollinator garden I have been measuring, griding, and studying sunlight to give it the best chance for success, which is good thing but, if you have an existing garden, just go ahead and poke the plants in where they will work best.  Remember, these plants require sunny locations with at least six hours of direct sunlight and some of them are very tall.

Below are photos of the urban residential pollinator garden that I had the good fortune of touring.

The garden is host to a variety of pollinators, including monarchs 

A bee hotel providing hospitality for a variety
 of smaller bees and wasps, also important
for carrying out the pollination process

Coneflower varieties abound

Swamp milkweed in a raised bed along with nectar plants

More milkweed in a raised bed

Bumble bee on a sweet pea blossom

MonarchWatch.org suggests a couple of layouts – tallest plants in the back planting down to the smallest plants in the front, if it is viewed from one side.  Or, tallest plants in the center and the rest planted outward around them, if it is viewed from all directions.  Group them together or spread them around, no matter, the butterflies will find them. 

It really is not complicated and these plants can even be raised in a few pots on a patio, so long as you have sunlight. 


If you would like to plant a pollinator garden, this site, monarchwatch.org, has everything you need to get started.  The cost for a kit is $16.00 and you can pick one for your zone.  They will send you a nice little packet with all of the host and nectar plant seeds as well as instructions for installing your garden.  You can even register your garden as an official Monarch Waystation!  They sell out but you can get on their list to receive an order later.  If you prefer to DIY, these plants and their seeds can be easily obtained at your local nursery. I will be posting another blog later as I finish designing my own and begin installation in the Spring.

Monarch garden seed kit

All bees and butterflies will love and visit your garden.  As the blossoms change so might your visitors, while others will become welcome regulars throughout the season.

I welcome your input and comments and if you have any questions about designing your own garden, please feel free to contact me.  I am happy to help!

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