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Of Milkweed and Monarchs


Question. A few years ago, I planted some milkweed seeds that I got from a non-profit organization promoting monarch butterfly conservation. The milkweed grew and spread like crazy through underground roots. However it is very tall and droopy, never flowers, attracts very few butterflies and is extremely unattractive. I see one or two caterpillars on the plants every year, but after a few days they disappear. (I assume they're being eaten?) I'm very disappointed and am considering digging it all out. Any ideas? Thank you,

---Regina in Wilmington, Delaware

Allred Hitchcock got it right! The birds have turned against me! As soon as my tomatoes turn red, they peck holes in them. More importantly, I have beautiful varieties of milkweed that attract lots of Monarchs. The monarchs lay eggs; the eggs hatch and the caterpillars grow; then they disappear—and my wrens look very well fed. Do cultivars of milkweed eventually lose the yucky taste that repels birds from devouring Monarch caterpillars? Thanks,

---James in Flemington, NJ

Answer. "Unfortunately, the toxins in the milkweed plant aren't as poisonous as people think," explains Ron Richael {pronounced "Rile"}, an 'urban butterfly enthusiast' (and author of a great little book on attracting butterflies) who tries to lure as many winged wonders as possible to his Pottstown, PA backyard. "I've lost as many as 18 monarch caterpillars feeding on milkweed in one day—and wrens are a big predator. But loss is the norm; a monarch egg has a very slim chance of producing an adult butterfly.

"And this past summer was especially hard on them," adds Ron. "The warm weather brought out a lot of predators and parasites. I especially noticed a lot of flies attacking the eggs and young caterpillars. Interestingly, houseflies will die after they eat a monarch egg or caterpillar, but that doesn't stop them."

Ron explains that his backyard is only 50 by 50 feet, but he jams a lot of plants in there; and over the years, has learned which ones really attract the most butterflies. "The legendary butterfly bush (Buddleia) is great," he explains, "but it needs a few years to get to a big enough size to attract good numbers. The real winner for me, especially for monarchs, is Tithonia—commonly known as Mexican sunflower. Its native to Mexico, as are the monarchs, and they really seem to recognize it. If you want to see a lot of monarchs, plant a lot of Tithonia.

"Milkweed", he continues, "is mostly a host plant; it's what the monarch caterpillars feed on. You install lots of milkweed in the hope of attracting the egg-laying adults, who show up in my part of Pennsylvania around the end of June. Those adults will also feed on the nectar in the milkweed flowers, but the bloom season is really short—each type only blooms for about a month. And this year, it was even shorter, because milkweed doesn't bloom well in the heat.

"The basic orange flowering milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa), commonly known as 'butterfly weed' does best in terrible soil with very little nutrition; you often see it growing in the stones along railroad tracks. If you want it to thrive in your garden, plant it in 50% sand and don't feed it. 'Common milkweed' (Asclepias syriaca,) which has pink flowers, is hard to grow from seed, so you might want to start with plants. And Swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata), may be the best choice for getting adults to lay lots of eggs. It does prefer a moist soil, but unlike its common name, does not require a 'swamp'.

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