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  • Merri-Lee M.

Welcoming the Monarchs...

Updated: Mar 4



Monarch Watch recently published a special alert, informing us that eastern Monarch numbers are down by about 59% from last year on wintering grounds in Mexico.

"This decline, considered a benchmark for the species' overall abundance, is attributed to climatic variations in breeding areas in Canada and the United States, resulting in reduced milkweed abundance due to high temperatures and drought, alongside land-use changes and herbicide use impacting essential nectar plants for adult Monarchs." (Journey North)



In Canada, days are lengthening, and we are thinking about starting seeds and planning gardens, in anticipation of the time when Monarchs will return, looking for sustenance and habitat. Milkweed and nectar plants are necessary for the survival of Monarchs; what are some of the best choices for our butterfly guests?


The Monarchs that visit our farm throughout the summer have definite plant preferences as they nectar, lay eggs, and feed as caterpillars on leaves. Every year I add a few more choices for them, and I've gathered some photos of Monarchs with some of the plants that have been favourites in this area, both in gardens and in the wild.



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Milkweed is, of course, a necessity for Monarchs in all stages. It is the only plant on which the butterflies will lay eggs, and the only one on which their young will feed as caterpillars. There were 4 different kinds of Milkweed in our gardens, all well-used by the Monarchs in the summer of 2023.


Swamp Milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) grows in a clump, and is not as overbearing in flower gardens as its cousin, Common Milkweed. Swamp Milkweed needs a fair bit of moisture, I have found, but always rewards us with sweet-smelling clusters of flowers that attract all sorts of pollinators. Newly-emerged Monarchs often find their way to these blossoms for their first sips of nectar as butterflies.


Eggs are laid on flower buds or leaves of mature plants, or, many times, on the tiniest, freshest Swamp Milkweed plants (some of which grow between sidewalk stones).


Monarch larvae love the taste of Swamp Milkweed leaves,


and seed pods later in the season.


White Milkweed (Asclepias perennis?) was a new one for me this year. The butterflies loved it, but it drooped and died partway through the summer. Not sure why -- I'll try it in a different spot next year, because it is quite lovely.


Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) spreads underground, and I have found that it is best grown on its own in a place where it does not have to be contained. Its large, heavy leaves are good spots for hiding eggs, and young leaves are enjoyed by caterpillars.


Not native to our area, the more compact Tropical Milkweed (Asclepias curassavica) is a pretty annual that is just as popular with Monarchs (for eggs and caterpillars) as the other varieties. I found that it was not as well-used as a butterfly nectar source as other Milkweed flowers this year, but perhaps that is because the plants are shorter, and were partially hidden by other vegetation. I have had good luck growing Tropical Milkweed from seed. (There is some concern about growing this plant in areas where it overwinters; it is strictly an annual here.)


I have grown Butterfly Weed (Asclepias tuberosa) other years; Monarchs enjoy it too, but it seems to have trouble overwintering in my gardens. It is a native plant, quite hardy, so not sure what I am doing wrong with this one!

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Although Coneflowers (Echinacea purpurea) are usually popular nectar sources, they were hardly used this year by anyone at all. I don't find that they are ever Monarch favourites, but this butterfly was finding something to sip.


Sometimes a Monarch will just rest on blooms and wait for a portrait! Roses don't have much to offer in the way of food, but they make a nice perch.


Knapweed, a non-native plant that is prevalent along roadsides (this was near MacGregor Park), seems to be an excellent source of nectar for butterflies and bees.


Monarchs sometimes perch and feed on Cosmos, but usually head for other plants after a few tastes.



I only saw a Monarch on Rudbeckia once. Although brilliantly coloured, there doesn't seem to be much nectar in these flowers.


Now this is a Monarch favourite! Native New England Asters (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae) are pollinator magnets, and are always filled with butterflies and honeybees later in the season, when other flowers are finished blooming.


A Monarch, a Milbert's Tortoiseshell, and plenty of honeybees swarmed Aster bushes on this sunny day.


One Monarch emerged from its chrysalis, then sat on a New England Aster bud, drying its wings (and hoping the bud would pop open?).


Perennial Verbena*, or Vervain (Verbena bonariensis), is another native plant that provides a great source of nectar. It has a long bloom time, flowering well into autumn.


I always plant a row or two of large Zinnias. The flowers bloom until frost, and are well-used by Monarchs and their friends.



These are some smaller Zinnias, not usually as popular with pollinators, but enjoyed by a pair of Monarchs on this particular day.



Butterfly Bush provides nectar for hungry new Monarchs, and lots of other pollinators.


Tall Tithonia plants, with their bright orange flowers, are also a great source of nectar.


The "hands-down favourite" nectar flower for Monarchs this summer, in my gardens, was native Meadow Liatris ( Liatris ligulistylis)!




There were often 2 or 3 Monarchs sharing blossoms on a Meadow Liatris plant.

(Actually, they didn't really share very well....)


This photo was featured in the last blog, but I am including it here again because it demonstrates the importance of another native perennial nectar plant that Monarchs, and many other butterflies as well, love: Joe Pye Weed. A pollinator favourite for sure, but it does need space to spread and thrive.


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After hours of nectaring, Monarchs will sometimes rest in our evergreen trees. They didn't gather here in large numbers this year, but there were frequently a few lounging later in the day. This Monarch was resting on a Tamarack branch.


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Again from Journey North:

"While the decline [in numbers of Monarchs] is alarming, it's not unprecedented, and Monarchs have shown resilience in the past. To aid in their recovery, efforts to increase milkweed and nectar plant abundance are crucial."


It is not a difficult task to provide a few essential food and host plants for our Monarch visitors. And what a thrill when a few (or many) Monarchs find their way into our gardens, and make good use of our offerings. At least 50 Monarchs hatched, crawled, "slept" in chrysalis, emerged, and flew from the area around our home in 2023.

How rewarding it is to know that we have played a small part in the survival of some of these amazing creatures during their northern sojourn!




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Happy Butterflying!

-Merri-Lee

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Please feel free to comment/correct/whatever ... you can sign in as a guest in the comment section if you don't want to create a password. Or email me, or use the contact page to send a message!


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*Thanks to Thelma Beaubien for sharing a Verbena plant with me this year -- a first for me, and a welcome addition to the gardens!

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snorkelady
snorkelady
Mar 04

Loved looking at you photos and learning about your visitors. Glad you introduced verbena - don't buy any this year .. it's late to appear but very plentiful when it does. Joe Pye Weed another favourite ... 2' in sun and 6+' in my shade garden. May you have twice the number of monarchs this year! Sending ❤️

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