The Monarch Butterfly is an iconic North American species, but it is in trouble. The species population has decreased dramatically over the last several decades due to pesticides, loss of habitat, decreasing number of pollinator flowers, and a changing climate. As a matter of fact, the Monarch population has decreased by 90% since 1992. And the milkweed plant population, which is the only source of food for Monarchs, is also down 90%.
This species is an important pollinator, and its decline could be a “canary in the coal mine” for the health and population of other important pollinators.
The good news is that you can help save the Monarchs by planting milkweed!
If you live in North Carolina, we recommend planting Asclepias tuberosa, also known as Butterfly Milkweed (among other names). This species is native our area, provides an excellent source of food for the Monarch Butterfly, and looks beautiful when in bloom. A perennial, Butterfly Milkweed produces bright orange blooms all summer long, year after year, so long as its root system remains in place.
There are many ways you can grow Butterfly Milkweed from seeds. Here is one easy method:
- Obtain seeds + coffee filter or paper towels + plastic bag + Tupperware container
- Soak your coffee filter and lay it on a plate
- Put the seeds on the filter, then fold the filter such that the seeds are inside of the wet filter
- Place the folded filter inside of the plastic bag and seal the bag
- Put the bag in the Tupperware container
- Put the container in the refrigerator for one month
- Now you can transfer the seeds and plant them in a seed starting tray, a pot, or directly outdoors
Monarch butterflies store a poison called Cardiac Glycosides that they had ingested by feeding on the leaves of the milkweed foliage in their larva stage. These toxins provide these butterflies with a poisonous defense against its predators such as lizards, birds, and frogs.
If you choose to plant your milkweed seeds outdoors, here are some tips:
- Do so in spring, after the final frost
- Choose an area of the garden in full sun that drains well. Butterfly Milkweed is not terribly picky about its soil
- Spread a 1- to 2-inch layer of compost over the area and mix into several inches of soil below
- Soak this soil/compost mix
- Plant the seeds. The plants will grow to a mature height of 18 to 30 inches tall and can be spaced 12 to 18 inches apart
- Protect the area if it may be disturbed by pets, children, rabbits, etc.
- Keep the soil moist until the plant is established and showing new growth
- After that, water only occasionally, as Butterfly Milkweed plants prefer dry soil
- Milkweed seeds should show signs of life within 14 to 28 days but can take up to 40 days to successfully germinate.
Once your plants begin to flower, look for monarchs during their migration in September or early October. Enjoy!
Oh, and PS, the Monarchs want you to give yourself a pat on the back for being so awesome!