It can be perilous to read poetry in the forest on a golden autumn day, while your child builds castles out of fallen branches and the dog lies dozing in the sun’s fading rays. One moment you’re daydreaming about buttercups and lady’s slippers, and the next you’re sobbing uncontrollably as you realize that your son may one day gather his grandchildren round his feet to tell them about the beautiful monarch butterflies of his youth that now live only in history books.
“Well, we better keep that from happening,” you think, as he wraps his chubby little arms around you and whispers, “Don’t cry mommy. I’m here.”
The monarch butterfly is but an insect. As an indicator species and a symbol of the things we love most about nature, however, it is powerful. In December of 2020, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) added monarch butterflies as a candidate for Endangered Species Act listing. Overall, eastern monarch populations have declined by more than 80% over the past two decades, and western monarchs have declined by 99.9%. USFWS estimates that there is a 96-100% probability that western monarch populations will collapse within 50 years and an 80% probability that eastern monarchs will as well.
The good news, however, is that we can keep that from happening. People like you and I can prevent monarch butterflies from going extinct, merely by planting the right flowers in our yards.
In fact, Monarch Joint Venture’s most recent Research Review, issued in December 2021, noted that the largest positive effect on eastern monarch overwintering populations will come from increasing the amount of milkweed plants growing in the central Midwest, including Minnesota. Milkweeds are a group of native plants that act as the larval host for monarch butterflies and are essential to their survival.
Most people are familiar with common milkweed, a fast-spreading plant that farmers and gardeners have often treated as a weed. In reality, there are actually 73 species of milkweed native to the United States, eight of which grow in Minnesota. In addition to common milkweed, other varieties to consider adding to your yard include: whorled milkweed (narrow stem, spiky leaves, white flowers); butterfly weed (short with bright orange flowers, grows in dry sun); purple milkweed (considered endangered in parts of its growing range); poke milkweed (flowers hang like little bells, grows in part shade); green comet milkweed (green flowers); showy milkweed (pink flowers and can grow as tall as 6ft); and swamp milkweed (pink flowers, grows in wet soils). It is also important to provide nectar for adult butterflies with native plants such as meadow and prairie blazing star, maximilian sunflower, wild bergamot, stiff goldenrod, common boneset, and joe-pye weed.
Though it may be tempting, avoid planting tropical milkweeds that are commonly sold in garden centers. Tropical milkweeds planted in Minnesota carry a parasite that can cause defects in monarchs’ wings, and may also confuse monarchs by signaling a breeding season when it’s time to migrate due to the flowers’ extended blooming season.
Happily, Minnesotans have rallied to save the monarch butterfly in recent years, so much so that there is currently more demand for milkweed seeds and plants than the native seed industry can provide. If you are one of the many people that collected milkweed seeds in the fall to plant this spring, do note that the seeds need to be cold-stratified in order to germinate. Seeds planted outdoors in the fall will do this naturally over the winter. If you’ve been storing seeds indoors, however, you’ll need to put them in the fridge before planting.
Here are the basic steps: 1) Wet a paper towel so it is damp; 2) Lay seeds flat so they aren’t touching and fold the paper towel into a smaller square; 3) Put the towel in a plastic baggie in your fridge and leave it there for 30 days. After that, you’re ready to garden!
In addition to planting milkweed in your yard, Pollinator Friendly Alliance, Washington Conservation District, Washington County Parks, and Wild Ones Oak Savanna are also seeking volunteers to help plant a pollinator oasis at Lake Elmo Park Reserve on Saturday, May 21, 10am-2pm. At this “Pollinator Planting Party” volunteers will plant over 2400 native wildflowers and will also enjoy free lunch and mini demo talks. To learn more and RSVP, go to tinyurl.com/pollinateplant.