Plant Flowers, Sign the Petition and Celebrate National Pollinator Week June 16 – 22

National Pollinator Week will be here June 16-22.  We’ve written before about the need to assist pollinators–the bees, butterflies, beetles, bats and birds that make 75% of our food crops possible.

Queen on mistflower in urban polliantor garden

Who says you can’t have a pollinator garden in the city? Queen on Purple Mistflower. Photo by Monika Maeckle

According to the USDA, one out of every three to four mouthfuls of food we eat and beverages we drink is made possible by pollinators.  If it wasn’t for the 200,000 species of insects and other creatures that help angiosperms (flowering plants) reproduce, much of the world would go hungry.

These mobile organisms move from plant to plant, making reproduction possible, delivering pollen from the male parts of flowers (the anther) to the female parts (the stigma).   The result?  The fruits, nuts and vegetables that sustain us.

Habitat loss, pesticide use, climate change and genetically modified crops have caused a serious decline in pollinators, resulting in lesser productivity in the food chain.  In severe cases, hand pollination has  been required for food crops to be productive–apple trees in China, for example, increasing food costs as much as 130%.

Hand pollination in China

In China, the lack of insects requires hand pollination of apple trees by people. Photo via www.infiniteunknow.net

Surely you’ve heard of the bee crisis.   A strange malady called colony collapse disorder has decimated the bee population, causing a huge loss of native bees.  Generally,  beekeepers lose 10-15% of their colonies to disease and various stresses each year. But since the advent of colony collapse disorder, losses have averaged 30%.  And bees, with their fuzzy bodies and specialized “pollen basket” body parts, are the most efficient pollinators.   Their decline negatively impacts plant production.  While the cause of CCD is not completely understood, the usual suspects of habitat loss, pesticide use (a special class of pesticides called neonicotinoids in particular), drought, disease and climate change have been implicated–just as in the downturn of the Monarch butterfly migration.

But maybe things are looking up for increasing pollinator habitat, at least when it comes to the 17 million acres of highways and right-of ways under the direction of the U.S. Department of Transportation.

Integrated vegetation management

Integrated vegetation management (IVM), beautiful to look at, great for pollinators, and saves money on mowing. Photo via University of Northern Iowa.

On May 30, Representatives Alcee L. Hastings (D-FL) and Jeff Denham (R-CA), Co-Chairs of the Congressional Pollinator Protection Caucus, introduced the Highways Bettering the Economy and Environment Act, known as the Highways BEE Act.

The BEE Bill, an amendment to the Highway Trust Fund reauthorization, encourages states to mow and spray fewer chemicals and plant more native plants on the 17 million acres of highway rights-of-way. It incurs no additional costs to states. The practices it promotes can save about 25 percent annually in roadside maintenance costs.

Passage of the bill directs the U.S. Department of Transportation to use its authority to encourage willing state transportation departments and rights-of-way managers to embrace practices that support pollinators, ground nesting birds, monarch butterflies and other creatures.  It also calls for the Department of Transportation to conduct or facilitate research and demonstration projects on the economic and environmental benefits and best practices for integrated vegetation management (IVM), reduced mowing and native plantings for pollinator habitat.

pollinatorplantguides

Pollinator Plant Guides are available by region at the Pollinator Partnership website.

According to the Pollinator Partnership, a nonprofit organization devoted to pollinator advocacy, the legislation is nearly identical to a bill introduced in 2011 which was widely supported by 28 national organizations and business, 175 regional organizations, 46 researchers and more than 1,500 individuals. “Regrettably, those good efforts [in 2011] fell short. We don’t want to fall short in helping pollinators this time!”

Indeed not. So go ahead and sign the petition right now.

What else can you do?  Plant flowers, preferably natives.   Pollinators need nectar sources to fuel up and keep all that sexual reproduction active between the male and female flower parts, resulting in food and beverages for us.   They also need host plants on which to lay their eggs.  The Pollinator Partnership has several pollinator plant guides that can direct you regarding what’s most appropriate in your region.  You can also contact your local agricultural extension office or Master Gardener Program.

Cowpen daisy deadhead

Don’t forget to deadhead. It will make for more blooms. Photo by Monika Maeckle

One more thing:  don’t forget to deadhead.    The old “green thumb” exercise means removing spent flowers before they go to seed so that the plant will continue to produce blooms.  This encourages a steady supply of flowers for visiting pollinators to slurp nectar, gather pollen, and transfer it to the next plant, all why furthering the life cycle.

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Resilience Required: Climate Change Turns up the Heat in the Butterfly Garden

Brace yourselves, butterfly gardeners: climate change is turning up the heat in the butterfly garden.

Not only do higher temperatures rule, but resilience and adaptability will be required for successful pollinator gardens in the coming years.

Butterfly Garden, Travis Heights, Austin, TX 78704, Summer 2011

An open mind and willingness to adapt will be keys to sustaining your butterfly garden in the wake of climate change.   Photo by Monika Maeckle

Surely you’ve noticed: Wacky weather, erratic extremes, traditional first and last frost dates that are routinely inaccurate.   As James Barilla wrote in the New York Times last week, “This past winter was a tough one in our backyard…. One week I’m sweating, the bees are buzzing, buds are breaking; the next, the birdbath is frozen and there’s snow on the ground.”

The crazy vacillations in daily temperatures make the usual gardening choices and chores more challenging. When it’s freezing one day, brazen sun and high temps the next, what’s a butterfly gardener to do? And if you’re feeling confused, imagine how birds, bees and butterflies are coping—not to mention the plants that sustain them.

From 80 degrees to 27 in 48 hours.  March 2 and 3, 2014.

From 80 degrees to 27 in 48 hours. March 2 and 3, 2014.

I suggest we all keep an open mind. Adaptability is key. For example, let’s not be doctrinaire about native plants.   Of course natives are preferred, but with changing range expansions and longer growing seasons, what does native really mean?

According to the National Arboretum, a native plant is one that was present at the time Europeans arrived in North America–that is, around  Columbus’s arrival in 1492.  I prefer the definition of the The Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center’s Mr. Smarty Plants, who defines natives like this:

“It is actually pretty simple…to define a native plant as … a plant that occurs naturally in the place where it evolved.”

That makes sense.   But I also agree with Mr. Barilla’s pragmatic approach to the garden.  “It doesn’t makes sense to think in terms of native and nonnative when the local weather vacillates so abruptly.   A resilient garden is a diverse garden.”

Amen.

Monarch on milkweed

Monarch butterflies LOVE Tropical milkweed, Asclepias curassavica  Photo by Monika Maeckle

My views on Tropical milkweed, Monarch butterflies favorite host plant, native to Mexico, are well-known. Some scientists will claim that the easy-to-grow orange bloomer encourages disease and its adoption will wipe out native milkweeds. I disagree. Besides, that train has left the station since Tropical Milkweed is the only Asclepias species widely available commercially.

No one says we have to choose between Tropical and native milkweeds.   Do both. While you’re struggling to get those natives established, Tropical milkweed can hold down the fort since it consistently delivers. Not only is it a reliable host plant for Monarch butterflies, but all butterflies flock to its bright blossoms for nectar.   And many scientists believe that it’s the plant on which Monarch butterflies evolved.

With my stretch of the world considered part of planting Zone 9A as of January 2012  (the same zone as coastal cities Corpus Christi and Houston) we’re not that far from “tropical,” anyway. This year, however, much of my Asclepias curassavica froze beyond recovery in the harsh winter and didn’t come back. Good thing it’s easy to propagate from seed and I have a private stash. I have replanted.

Chino Checkerspot

The endangered Chino Checkerspot moved to higher altitudes and changed its host plant of its own volition. Courtesy photo

Perhaps we should look to the butterflies themselves for inspiration.   One endangered species, the Quino Checkerspot, Euphydryas editha quino, found in Mexico and southern California, shifted to higher altitudes and switched its host plant to an entirely different species of its own volition.  Scientists were expecting the species to become extinct, but somehow it quickly adapted, according to research presented at the Butterfly Conservation’s seventh international symposium in April.

Meanwhile, we learned recently that professional and amateur butterfly breeders have also had luck feeding Monarch butterfly caterpillars pumpkin, butternut squash, even cucumbers in their fifth and final instar.  This news came at a good time this spring when a brutal winter and late spring made milkweeds unavailable, just as Monarchs began their migration.  While I received at least one email from a scientist chastising me for celebrating this news, taking it as a challenge to native milkweeds, my feeling is we should celebrate the fact that Monarchs appear to be more adaptable than we thought.

Monarch caterpillars on pumping and squash

Monarch butterfly caterpillars will eat pumpkin, squash, even cucumbers in the fifth instar or final stage. Photo courtesy Ellen Reid

Unpredictable weather will likely be the new normal for some time. As the third National Climate Assessment report suggests, Texas will continue to face severe shortages of ground and surface water. Floods caused by extreme rain events will interrupt the ongoing drought. Tornadoes, thunderstorms, hurricanes, and winter storms will occur with increasing frequency. Oh, and the wildfires will continue.

Science tells us this is a period of rapid climate change like no other. The plants, insects and gardeners that can adapt, will survive, and with luck, thrive.

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Milkweed Shortage Sparks “Alternative Fuels” for Hungry Monarch Caterpillars

Monarch butterflies have made their way to Texas, but unfortunately not much milkweed greets them upon arrival.  A harsh, dry winter preceded by drought and schizophrenic weather have left the sought-after perennial a no-show in many Texas gardens–and on roadsides and ranch land.

Milkweeds, that is, any Asclepias species, are the host plants to Monarch butterflies and the only plant on which they will lay eggs to continue their life cycle.

PUmpkin fed Monarch

The Monarch butterfly on the left was fed with pumpkin during its final instar. Photo by Ellen Reid

Reliable DPLEX correspondent Harlen Aschen wrote to the listserv that reaches hundreds of butterfly fans that on a 1000-mile trip from Port Lavaca, Texas, past San Antonio to near Abilene and back around Austin “we saw no blooming milkweed.”

Not good.

Yet that hasn’t stopped a tenacious group of butterfly lovers from raising caterpillars and hatching butterflies on “alternative fuels.”

Professional butterfly breeders have been experimenting for years to keep their livestock well nourished when host plants become scarce.    Many of us who raise butterflies at home, especially in a year like this, also seek alternatives, since local nurseries seem to be having a hard time getting milkweed and keeping it in stock.   The recent news that the Monarch butterfly migration may soon become extinct because of a loss of milkweed habitat is driving the demand.

So what’s a hungry caterpillar to do?

Hungry caterpillars on milkweed seedlings

My boys are hungry! Six Monarch caterpillars have pretty much decimated this pot of milkweed seedlings planted in February. Good thing I have another one. Photo by Monika Maeckle

It’s a quandary.   At my house, I planted Tropical milkweed seeds in February and have several pots growing, including two filled with seedlings only two inches tall.  This will sate my caterpillars for a few days, at most.

I’m hoping that by the time the hungry cats finish up the tender seedlings, my garden milkweeds will have taken off.  Or perhaps local nurseries will get more milkweed in stock.

Over on the DPLEX list, butterfly buffs–and the Monarch caterpillars–are getting resourceful.  Several folks mentioned that by the time the caterpillars get to their fifth instar, or their final stage, before morphing into a chrysalis, they will eat pumpkin and cucumbers.

That’s right, folks.   See it with your own eyes.

Monarch caterpillars eating pumpkin

No milkweed? No problem. In the fifth instar, Monarch caterpillars will eat a variety of pumpkins. Photo courtesy Ellen Reid

“The butterfly on the left was fed with pumpkin during its final instar.  The one on the right was reared on milkweed,” Ellen Reid wrote via email all the way from St. Arnaud, Victoria, Australia.  “We couldn’t distinguish between them in any way.”

Reid shared a photo of “pumpkin frass”–orange colored butterfly poop which is produced in volumes in the final stages of the caterpillars metamorphosis.   Usually the frass is dark green or even brown, but “pumpkin frass” looks like the food that fueled it.

Paul Addington tried feeding his Monarch caterpillars cucumbers.  It worked.

Monarchs eating cucumbers

Monarch caterpillars in the fifth instar will eat cucumbers. But they have to be FRESH cucumbers! Photo courtesy Paul Addington

“These cats are eating the skin of the cucumber,” relayed Addington. “These were organic, but still felt like they were waxy, so [they were] heavily scrubbed first.”

Addington said the caterpillars indeed preferred milkweed when given a choice.  “All 52 of mine finished on cucumber, looked great and joined the wild,” he said, adding     “UPDATE: must be fresh, crunchy cucumbers.…two-weeks-in-the-fridge cukes were rejected with enthusiasm….what an uproar!”

Pumpkin frass

The frass, or butterfly poop, of pumpkin fed Monarch caterpillars reflects the food’s orange tint. Photo courtesy Ellen Reid

Dr. Chip Taylor, founder of Monarch Watch, chimed in to the conversation, letting folks know that the alternatives have been known for a while.   “These alternatives have been utilized by many people in the past. They only seem to work for fifth instar larvae that are less than four days from pupating. Many of the larvae will not make these transitions successfully.”

So Monarch butterfly caterpillars appear to be more adaptable than we thought.

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First Lady Michelle Obama Gets Milkweed as White House Adds First Pollinator Garden

Congratulations, pollinator advocates!   Last week, First Lady Michelle Obama added a “first-ever pollinator garden,” including two types of milkweed and dozens of flowering nectar plants, to the White House Kitchen Garden.

First Lady Michelle Obama busy at the White House Kitchen Garden where she recently added pollinator plants, including two species of milkweed.  Photo via Obama Foodorama

First Lady Michelle Obama busy at the White House Kitchen Garden where she recently added pollinator plants, including two species of milkweed. Photo via Obama Foodorama Blog

On April 2, during its spring installation, 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue added Swamp milkweed, Asclepias incarnata and Butterfly weed, Asclepias tuberosa to the 1500-square-foot garden.  The milkweed species will serve as Monarch host plant as well as a favored nectar source to bees and other butterfly species.

Swamp milkweed

Coming soon to the first ever pollinator garden at the White House: Asclepias incarnata, Swamp Milkweed. Photo by Monika Maeckle

In her remarks to the 25 school children assisting in the planting, Mrs. Obama explained  she was adding flowering inedible plants to the vegetable garden because she wants to “help bees and butterflies.”  Until now, herbs and vegetables have occupied all 34 of the garden’s beds since it was first planted in 2009. 

“A pollinator garden helps to encourage the production of bees and Monarch butterflies.  They pollinate the plants, they help the plants grow,” said the First Lady.  “They’re dying because of disease–we don’t even know why some beehives are just totally disappearing.”

Ascelpias tuberosa

Asclepias tuberosa, or Butterfly Weed, will be growing soon at the White House Pollinator Garden. Photo courtesy Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center

The loss of the insects “could be a problem for the planet because if you don’t have insects and great pollinators to pollinate the plants, it could affect our food source, it could affect our ability to continue to grow things,” Mrs. Obama explained.

“So this garden is going to help to contribute to improving that problem,” she said.  “Pretty cool, huh?”

VERY cool.

The addition of milkweed to this symbolic presidential garden must be viewed as a small victory for pollinator advocacy.

Ever since the news broke in January that this year’s migrating Monarch butterfly population plunged to historically low numbers and scientists suggested that the migration may soon become extinct, Monarch and pollinator advocates have been energized, seeking solutions to the decline.

On February 19, the Presidents of the United States and Mexico, Barack Obama and Enrique Peńa Nieto, and Prime Minister Stephen Harper of Canada, met in Toluca, Mexico to discuss weighty matters of state–border security, economic issues, energy issues, and  immigration.  By the end of the day, they had also agreed to work together to try and save the Monarch butterfly migration, which binds all three countries through the magnificent insects’ North American migration.

Now here we are only seven weeks later–enough time for a Monarch butterfly egg to move through its five instars, form a chrysalis and hatch into a butterfly–and milkweed has been added to the White House garden.   

Coincidence?   We think not.

Michelle Obama, please plant milkweed at the White House
We did it!  First Lady Michelle Obama added milkweed to the White House kitchen garden, creating the first-ever pollinator garden at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue last week.

What happened in between is a testament to what is possible when individuals and citizen scientists take action.   As written here previously, the NAFTA gathering galvanized awareness of pollinator decline.  

Two groups, the Mexico-based Grupo de los Cien Internacional and Make Way for Monarchs here in the U.S., banded together to form the Milkweed-Butterfly Recovery Alliance  and wrote a letter to the three presidents beseeching them to work together for cross-continent solutions to restoring milkweed habitat. More than 160 scientists, conservationists, artists, naturalists and others signed the letter.

Facebook pages were created, petitions launched (including one by the Texas Butterfly Ranch–thanks to all 508 of you who signed!) and organizations as diverse as the NRDC, the Xerces Society, Pollinator Partnership, Monarch Watch, Monarch Larvae Monitoring Project –even Monsanto expressed commitments to help.

Awareness is the first step in addressing the problem and this small garden cultivates attention at the highest level.  This is progress, pollinator peeps.   Let’s keep pushing.

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Plant Milkweed, Sign our Petition, Help Save the Monarch Butterfly Migration

Crazy, erratic weather arrived in Texas–again–this week, bringing freezing temperatures to much of the state.   Last Saturday temperatures rose to the 80s;  by noon on Sunday it was 27 degrees.   Surely plants and insects must be grossly confused and butterfly gardeners like me start thinking: what should we plant in our gardens?

Michelle Obama, please plant milkweed at the White House

Since Monarch butterflies are about to leave their overwintering roosts in Michoacán and head our way, it’s impossible to not consider milkweed, the only plant on which Monarch butterflies will lay their eggs.    A cold winter in San Antonio that included four “polar vortexes” has frozen all our milkweed to the ground, leaving little or nothing for the  migrating insects to host on if they show up in the next few weeks.   Even sturdy Asclepias asperula, Antelope Horns, which we usually see at the ranch by now haven’t shown their nubby heads.

Dr. Chip Taylor, founder of Monarch Watch, told us via email this week that looking ahead, average temperatures are likely to prevail for the next 40 days, according to Accu-weather.   “That’s a more favorable forecast than the one from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association,” he wrote.   In his seasonal blogpost assessing the beginning of the 2014 Monarch migration, Dr. Taylor had speculated that temperatures would be higher than normal in Texas for March and April.   “Which wouldn’t be good,” he said.

Why?

It seems counterintuitive, but it creates a bad situation when early spring is warmer than usual because the Monarchs disperse further north faster.  That can cause them to get ahead of the milkweed plants they need to lay their eggs and provide food for hatching caterpillars.   When they travel further north too early, they arrive in locations where milkweed has neither germinated nor produced leaves for them to eat.  On top of that, subsequent cold spells  are more likely to occur as they move further north–and this can kill eggs and caterpillars they leave behind in the erratic weather.

Aslcepias curassavica, Tropical milkweed

Asclepias curassavica, Tropical milkweed seeds, were planted in February and are just showing their delicate leaves. Photo by Monika Maeckle

While the weather continues its uncertain patterns one thing is for sure:  we should all be planting milkweed.

I dropped some Asclepias curassavica, Tropical Milkweed, and Asclepias incarnata, Swamp milkweed, into several black buckets in early February and the sprouts are poking their dainty heads above the soil mix right now.  In about two weeks, I’ll re-pot those seedlings into two-inch square containers for later transplanting in the garden and sharing with friends.

You should all do the same.   If not with Tropical Milkweed, the most widely available, easy-to-grow variety, then with your local natives collected from the wild or bought at native nurseries and seed suppliers.  Check out the Texas Butterfly Ranch Milkweed Guide for details.

Asclepias incarnata, Swamp milkweed

Monarch on Swamp Milkweed on the Llano River, PHoto by Monika Maeckle

Native plant purists sometimes contest the planting of Tropical milkweed outside of its natural range, which would limit it to parts of Mexico.  They suggest that it might cause disease or encourage migrating Monarchs to break their diapause and stick around locally.   I don’t buy that argument, especially when Monarchs are in such great need of milkweed and Tropical milkweed is the only one widely available commercially.   To me, that’s like saying you’re not going to feed a starving child anything but locavore, organic produce.  Given the circumstances, we can’t afford to be so choosy.   Read more about the Tropical milkweed quandary in this post.

However, for those who live in warm climates where Tropical milkweed might survive a mild winter, best practices suggest we should chop it to the ground at the end of the fall so  any undesireable spores that may carry disease won’t have the chance to fester on its stalks and be passed along to the next generation.  This year’s ample freezes took care of that for 2014.

While you’re waiting for those milkweed sprouts to take root, please sign our petition encouraging First Lady Michelle Obama to plant milkweed at the White House garden.   The First Lady has been lauded for planting an organic vegetable garden at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, and for encouraging Americans to get out and get active through her Let’s Move initiative.   We feel that planting milkweed–Asclepias syriaca, Common milkweed, perhaps–in between the rows of broccoli and tomatoes at the White House would be an apt expression of her priorities, while also helping to raise awareness of the dramatic decline of the Monarch migration.

If you agree, please join us by signing our petition.

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Mostly Native Urban Butterfly Garden Outperforms Lawn Anytime in San Antonio

Last year about this time, we detailed a turf-to-bed conversion in the front yard of our rent house in the downtown Lavaca neighborhood of San Antonio.  We thought it would be helpful to share what happened over the past year on that small square of yard, thoughtfully converted from a drought damaged lawn to a mostly native butterfly garden with a bit of edible landscape thrown in.

The garden is located in Southtown, near downtown San Antonio.  What follows is a month-by month lowdown of a Year in the Life of an Urban Butterfly Garden.   Hopefully you’ll be inspired to get busy and start your own.

January, 2012

Future butterfly garden in Lavaca

Austin transplants hold down the fort at our future Lavaca neighborhood butterfly garden in downtown San Antonio, January 2012. Photo by Monika Maeckle

It actually started in November of 2011.

At the time, work and personal circumstances pulled me back to San Antonio after 12 months of temporary duty in Austin.   I joined my husband at a distinctive green-built downtown “Cube,” one of a pair of rentals conceived by progressive architect/urban pioneer Hilary Scruggs of Operative Ventures.  Our plan was to live there one year while building a house on a nearby empty lot just a mile away on the border of the historic King William district.  We’re now well into Year Two of that plan.

The Cube’s front yard St. Augustine was badly burnt from months of 2011′s historic drought.   Scruggs agreed to let me have my way with part of the yard, planting it as a butterfly garden and edible landscape.

Austin to San Antonio translplants

Austin to San Antonio transplants: rue, milkweed, bulbine and some favorite lantanas.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

Because I become irrationally attached to certain plants, I choose to recycle them, digging them up from one yard and moving them to another.   The prior year, upon moving from our large family home in Alamo Heights to Austin, I took along several beloved favorites from my well-established butterfly garden–a large rue bush, several milkweeds, reliable red and mealy blue sages, and a couple of bulbines.  These same plants, and a few new ones, made the 75-mile trek to Austin and were now returning with me.

In December, we  prepped the area via solarization, using mulch and newspaper to kill the turf.   Six-10 layers of newsprint or cardboard covered by three-four inches of mulch and  steady South Texas sunshine will typically kill grass and weeds in just a few weeks, creating a decent environment for transplants, which we installed right away.   Then, we waited.

February

One of the mainstays of my urban butterfly gardens has been various types of daisies, all members of the Helianthus family.  I love dramatic sunflowers in early spring and have a fondness for Cowpen Daisy, because it blooms from March to November and takes our Texas heat so well with little water.

Last year I planted daisy, sunflower and milkweed seeds indoors in  February.   The milkweed would be used for “caterpillar food,” when Monarchs started arriving in March.

Cowpen Daisy Seedlings, February 2012.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

Cowpen Daisy Seedlings, February 2012. Photo by Monika Maeckle

March

By the time of our last official estimated freeze date, March 15, Mammoth Sunflower and  Cowpen Daisies started indoors were transplanted to the front yard.   Our transplanted milkweeds were already hosting dozens of migrating Monarchs, who graced us with eggs which we gladly brought inside for fostering.

Mammoth sunflowers were transplanted in early March.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

Mammoth sunflowers were transplanted in early March. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Cowpen Daisy

Cowpen Daisy became the foundation of the Lavaca butterfly garden.  Transplanted up front in March, 2012.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

Monarch caterpillars brought inside for fostering, harvested from our front yard, March 2012.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

Monarch caterpillars brought inside for fostering, harvested from our front yard, March 2012. Photo by Monika Maeckle

The hungry critters devoured sprouts of Tropical mlikweed we had planted in pots specifically for their consumption.

We also installed a few tomato, okra and pepper plants, and of course parsley, rue, and fennel, which double as Swallowtail host plant as well as culinary herbs.

April

Our first happy sunflower bloomers showed themselves in late April.  Unfortunately,

Happy Mammoth sunflower and a variegated fritillary, April 30, 2012  Photo by Monika Maeckle

Happy Mammoth sunflower and a variegated fritillary, April 30, 2012 Photo by Monika Maeckle

garden vandals saw fit to decapitate our sunny soldiers, leaving their seed heads drooping in the breeze.  In one case, a 12-foot tall sunflower was beheaded by a teen walking past.  A worker installing a fence for a neighbor called her out.   The girl dropped the sunflower head and another passing teen lay it on our front porch.  Such are the travails of the unfenced urban garden on a well-trafficked sidewalk.

May

May brought the first tomatoes and a couple of okra.   Cowpen Daisies flushed their yellow blossoms, drawing Bordered Patch butterflies, which use them as a host plant.

By now, Swallowtail butterflies regularly visited the garden, nectaring on the prolific daisies and leaving their lovely, round eggs on our fennel and my well-traveled rue.

Eastern Swallowtails love fennel, parsley and rue.   They show up in late spring and keep coming all summer.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

Eastern Swallowtails love fennel, parsley and rue. They show up in late spring and keep coming all summer. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Swallowtail caterpillar

Acrobatic Swallowtail caterpillar on fennel.   Photo by Monika Maeckle

The Swallowtail caterpillars are highly entertaining, and sport crazy yellow tentacles that seem to reach out and fathom the universe when bothered, giving off a weird scent. Kids love them.

June

The sunflowers were losing their charm as the weight of their heavy heads caused them to slouch forward in sad fashion.   Sparrows and cardinals started perching on their stiff stems, pecking the protein-rich seeds.

Sphinx Moth on Datura, photo by Betsy Betros, via BugGuide.net

Sphinx Moth on Datura, a.k.a. Jimsonweed, photo by Betsy Betros, via BugGuide.net

Tomato and Jimsonweed plants became common hosts for Tomato and Tobacco hornworms, which later morph into the beautiful Sphinx moth.    Loathed by gardeners, I find these caterpillars charming with their eight V-shaped marks on each side and a signature horn on the rear.  Manduca sexta, the tobacco hornworm, closely resembles its tomato preferring cousin, but shows seven diagonal white lines on its sides and a curved horn.

Tobacco Hornworm on Jimsonweed

Look at that face! Tobacco Hornworm on Jimsonweed.   PHoto by Monika Maeckle

Because they are moths, the caterpillars drop to the ground, cover themselves with earth to later rise as a large, hovering night-flyer.

 July

Fourth of July brings peak summer–long, hot days.   Daisies, milkweed, Jimsonweed and sages are taking the heat well.  Sunflower seeds are ready for collection from their tired, dried heads–here’s how to harvest them.

July:  Time to harvest sunflower seeds.  Just scrape them from the flower head with a spoon. Photos by Nicolas Rivard

We also had our first brood of Bordered Patch butterfly caterpillars on our Cowpen Daisies.   The fuzzy black critters decimated a few leaves, but the birds soon came and made quick snacks of most of them.

Bordered Patch butterfly: Quick change artist?

Bordered Patch butterfly on Cowpen Daisy.   July 2012.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

August

We start to see Queens in late summer.  Queens, Danaus gillippus, share the multiple charms of Monarchs, Danaus plexippus.  Both flaunt large size, flashy, striped caterpillars, and chrysalises that resemble a jade crystal, flecked with gold.

Queens are back in town

Queens are back in town. Here, on  Tropical milkweed..  Male Queens adore Gregg’s Purple Mistfower.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

If you have flowers blooming during the most brutal summer days, you’re likely to see the burnt orange creatures.  Like Monarchs, Queens lay their eggs only on milkweed, but they nectar indiscriminately.  Males have a penchant for Gregg’s purple mist flower.   Apparently they extract minerals necessary for their virility from the native perennial.

September

Late August and early September signal the start of the Monarch migration in our part of the world.  We usually buy our tags from Monarch Watch in August and tag the first Monarchs over Labor Day weekend.

Use your thumbnail to lift tag from sheet and transfer to butterfly.

Labor Day Monarch tagging, 2012:  Use your thumbnail to lift tag from sheet and transfer to butterfly.   Photo by Monika Maeckle

Monarch Watch has run the citizen scientist tagging program for more than 20 years.  Hundreds of thousands of butterflies have been tagged in the two decades by nature lovers like you and me.   The data collected by those citizen scientists has helped piece together the many mysteries of the Monarch migration.

We’ve tagged about 2,000 over the years and had 26 recoveries from the forest floor in Michoacan.  Here’s how to tag Monarch butterflies, if you’re interested.

October

April and October are always some of the best months in the garden in South Texas.  If you’re lucky and plan ahead, you can still be pulling okra off your plants, get a second round of tomatoes and harvest some peppers.

Lavaca butterfly garden, October 2012.  Cowpen daisy is a rock star foundation plant. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Lavaca butterfly garden, October 2012. Cowpen daisy is a rock star foundation plant. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Perhaps now you can see why I love the Cowpen Daisy so much.   The plant just keeps on giving blooms.  The more you cut it back, the more it puts out.  You can shape it into a hedge, let it grow tall and gangly, or chop it short and bushy.  And of course the butterflies love it.

Cowpen Daisy continues to bloom through the fall, drawing all kinds of butterflies

Cowpen Daisy continues to bloom through the fall, drawing all kinds of butterflies as a nectar source. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Monarch caterpillar on Tropical milkweed

Monarch caterpillar on Tropical milkweed in October, 2012. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Butterflies and other pollinators are ubiquitous this time of year because the weather is so perfect for blooms.   

November

November is a great time to collect seeds for next year’s butterfly garden.  It’s prime time for planting many native wildflowers, too.
Some dislike the brown woody look of native annuals that must be  allowed to “go to seed” in order to produce blooms next year.   But for me, the seeds add to the charm of these reliable plants.
Lavaca garden, November 2012

Lavaca Butterfly garden, November 2012. Some Cowpen Daisies are spent–good time to gather seeds for next year. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Tagged Monarch butterfly on leftover Halloween pumpkin

Tagged Monarch butterfly on leftover Halloween pumpkin. November 2012 Photo by Monika Maeckle

And while you’re gathering those seeds, the butterflies just keep on coming.  Our typical first freeze in San Antonio is supposed to be in mid-late November, but climate change has made that so unpredictable that we, like the birds, butterflies, bats and bees, should seize every sunny, warm day and make the most of it.

December

The last month of the year is a good time to make use of those seeds you’ve collected.  Brush them off the sidewalk, put them in a brown paper bag and share them with friends.

Seeds for next year

Seeds for next year, gathered from Lavaca garden, December 2012. Photo by Monika Maeckle

 We also like to make seedballs for ranch wildscaping and guerilla gardening projects. The recipe is easy, inexpensive, and makes for a great group activity.
Rollyo seedballs--why wouldn't you?

Rollyo seedballs–why wouldn’t you?   Makes a fun group activity.  Photo by Hugh Daschbach

Looking back over the year, can you believe how much life–and fun–can be culled from a small butterfly garden?   A modest patch of earth populated with appropriate, native and well-adapted plants beats a vast green lawn anytime.

More on this topic:

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Catalina Trail, Dr. Chip Taylor, Black Witch Moths, Tomato Hornworms and IMAX Movie make Top Posts of 2012

What were the most-read stories at the Texas Butterfly Ranch this year?  Beyond the homepage and the “about us” tab, these were the most widely read posts over the past 12 months.  Take a look and happy holidays to you.

#1  Catalina Trail, founder of the Monarch Butterfly Roosting Sites, Lives a Quiet Life in Austin

Our most-read blogpost written in 2012 is the story of Catalina Trail, a lovely, quiet woman who ‘s role in Monarch butterfly natural history was relatively uncelebrated until

Catalina Trail, always a bit of a free spirit, traveled the hemisphere in the 70s.

Free spirit and itinerant traveler Catalina Trail traveled the hemisphere in the 70s. Photo copyright Catalina Trail

recently.    We consider it a privilege to have made her acquaintance and found a friend in Catalina this year.    She lives just 75 miles up the road in Austin, Texas.

#2   The Intriguing Black Witch Moth, Large, Batlike and Harmless

This enormous dark, batlike moth loves to rest under eaves and around doorways, a habit that results in quite a “startle factor” when flushed, as explained by our friend and

Black Witch Moth Female

Black Witch Moth Female, photo via www.whatsthatbug.com

entomologist Mike Quinn.  The drought seems to have helped the moth’s population grow and extended its migration, making it more common than usual this year.

#4 Desperately Seeking Milkweed:  Monarch Butterflies Appetites Create Milkweed Emergency

This post created a bit of a stir, as it called out a local nursery for selling chemical laced milkweed to a friend who was feeding hundreds of Monarch caterpillars.   Read on

Boo-hoo! Dead Monarch caterpillars fall victim to pesticide laced milkweed

Boo-hoo! Dead Monarch caterpillars fall victim to pesticide laced milkweed.  Photo via Sharon Sander

for tips on determining if milkweed bought from local nurseries is riddled with systemic pesticides that spell death for Monarch caterpillars.

#4  Tomato Hornworms, Loathed by Gardeners, Morph into the Magnificent Sphinx Moth

Gardeners often can’t tolerate the tomato hornworm, which appears in early summer and decimates those heirloom and cherry hybrids so painstakingly tended.   But the chubby

Tobacco Hornworm on Jimsonweed

Look at that face! Tomato Hornworm on Jimsonweed.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

green “worm” is actually a caterpillar that morphs into a gorgeous pink-and-black moth that hovers and dances much like a hummingbird.

#5  Chasing Monarchs on the Llano River with Dr. Chip Taylor

It was a butterfly evangelist’s fantasy come true, to tag Monarch butterflies with one of the foremost experts on Monarchs on the planet, Dr. Chip “Orly” Taylor, founder of

Dr. Chip Taylor, Founder of Monarch Watch

Monarch Watch founder Dr. Chip Taylor on the Llano River in the Texas Hill Country.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

Monarch Watch, the citizen scientist program that has been a fixture of my autumn each year.   Read about my kidnapping Dr. Taylor from a conference in Kerrville for a quick trip to our Llano River ranch to take the pulse of the 2012 migration in  October.

#6   FAQ:  Is it OK to Move a Monarch Chrysalis?

This post gets a lot of action when folks find a lonely Monarch or other butterfly chrysalis in an inopportune spot.    We frequently are asked if it’s ok, and if so, how to relocate the

Queen and Monarch Chrysalises

Sure it’s ok to move chrysalises to a safer spot. Photo by Monika Maeckle

chrysalis to a safer, perhaps more welcoming place.  Here’s tips on how to do it.

#7 IMAX Film Might be as Good As it Gets for Monarch Butterflies 

The fabulous IMAX film, Flight of the Butterflies, opened in September, just as we were anticipating the Monarch migration.    All the hubbub surrounding the film’s debut made it seem that the 3D footage assembled by SK Films might be as good as it could possibly

A Butterfly Haven somewhere in Michoacan

A Butterfly Haven somewhere in Michoacan –Photo courtesy SK Films

get for Monarchs this year–and that is likely the case.   Monarchs may have had their worst year yet, numbers-wise.  Texas Butterfly Ranch later reviewed the film in this post.

Other favorite posts that were written in years past:

Butterflies Made a Darwin Doubter out of Valdimir Nabokov

I continue to be perplexed why this post consistently ranks as one of the most read in Texas Butterfly Ranch history.  Perhaps referencing the conservative Discovery Institute is what continues to provoke readers. Hmm.

Milkweed Guide:  Choose Best Plants for Monarch Butterflies

This plant guide for Texas milkweeds has been a perpetual most-viewed post since it was published in November of 2010.   Time for us to update it, which we hope to do soon.

Antelope Horns Milkweed

Antelope Horns Milkweed is a great choice for Texas gardens and wildlscapes.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

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First Frost Often Means the End for Late Season Caterpillars, and a Next Chapter for the Intriguing Frostweed Wildflower

We’re finally getting our first frost in San Antonio, about three weeks after the typical November 21 first frost date prescribed by gardening buffs, farmer’s almanacs and the National Climate Data Center.

Frostweed

Frostweed spills its guts on first frost creating a beautiful ice sculpture. Photo via Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center

Freezing temps usually mean the end of the season for butterflies.   Just this week we’ve had several emails and posts from butterfly wranglers wondering what to do about caterpillars discovered outside–better to let them brave the elements, or bring them inside?

Brought 22 monarch caterpillars in from the cold. Some are already starting to make chrysalises. Some are still eating, and a few have “J’d” but after a day haven’t progressed. Anyone have any hints or advice? Hoping for the best and preparing.

–Tom Kinsey, San Antonio, via Facebook

I can argue the answer to that question either way, and have taken both routes.   A late stage Queen caterpillar was discovered on a milkweed plant in our courtyard this week.  She remained outside.

Considerations included my busy holiday schedule, a lack of host plant, and the probability that when she formed and later emerged from the chrysalis, the butterfly would face cold temperatures (making it difficult if not impossible to fly), little nectar, and few prospects for a mate.  What kind of life is that?

Frostweed

Frostweed is a magnet for Monarch and other butterflies in the fall, a reliable late season nectar source.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

And yet, our friend Marileen Manos Jones of upstate New York took a different tact in late October.  She convinced Southwest Airlines to fly her and a lone lady Monarch to San Antonio in early November to release the late blooming lep at the San Antonio Botanical Gardens.   No “right” answer exists to the late season caterpillar quandary.  It’s a judgment call.

The first frost of the season poses a separate natural majesty not unrelated to butterflies:  the transformation of the excellent nectar plant, Frostweed, into a beautiful ice sculpture.  I love this plant.   Such an overlooked gem.  Can’t figure out why  this easy-to-grow perennial is not sold in commercial nurseries.

In the fall, Frostweed serves as a prime nectar source for Monarchs and other butterflies.  The sturdy Verbesina virginica, with its odd square-like stalks, sports fleshy green flanges on its stems.   The wildflower produces lush white blossoms from late August through November in semi-shade that provides respite from the late summer sun.   The flowers bloom in big colonies along the rivers and streams of the Texas Hill Country.

Frostweed ice sculpture

Frostweed ice ribbons are always a nice surprise. Photo via Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center

Along our stretch of the Llano River, Frostweed lines the riverbanks.  This last year took a toll on the flowers, as the water table had receded significantly from the 2011 drought.  Many Frostweeds died as stiff stalks in August.

But in general, this plant is gorgeous, drought toleranat, a generous seed and nectar producer, and the butterflies love it.

As a member of the aster family, Frostweed  can reach six-eight feet in height in a good year. Upon first frost, the stem splits, the sap oozes out and freezes to form fascinating curled ice ribbons and intriguing sculptures. That’s why it’s called Frostweed, or sometimes, Iceweed.

Frostweed Seed

Frostweed produces generous seed and nectar. And it’s easy to grow.   Photo by Monika Maeckle

Only a handful of species commonly exhibit this behaviour, according to Dr. James Carter’s website.   Dr. Carter coined the term, crystallofollia, to describe the phenomenon, from the Latin crystallus, ice, and folium, leaf.   Dr. Carter also points out that “the ice formation far exceeds the amount of moisture from sap locally available in the stem, and must be augmented by water drawn up from the roots.”   Frostweed’s rhizomes help it slurp up moisture in the soil to produce the ice formations.  The robust root system also makes it easy to propagate the plant from its roots as well as from seed.

For a fascinating blow-by-blow of what actually occurs botanically in the forming of these sculptures, see Bob Harms’ Biophysica of Crystallofolia website.   It humbles the most talented artist.

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In the Butterfly Garden: Time to Harvest Sunflower Seeds, Here’s How to Do it

Those fabulous sunflowers you planted in the spring are likely hanging their heads by now.  The Asteracae family, which boasts more than 1,600 genera and 23,000 different species, lets you know when seeds are ready by dropping its head and turning brown on its backside. I prefer the nonnative Mammoth Sunflower for my butterfly garden.

Monarch butterfly on Mammoth Sunflower

Mammoth Sunflower seed head provides dozens of nectaring possibilities for a Monarch butterfly. Photo by Monika Maeckle

What’s so great about these easy-to-grow stunners is their amazing generosity.  Depending on the species you choose,  one tiny seed begets hundreds of tiny florets on the head, or capitulum, of the plant.  Yes, that’s correct.  EACH of those fluffy yellow growths that appear on the flower above are individual flowers.

For butterflies, this represents a nectar cafeteria.  They can land in one spot and conveniently slurp on serial nectar straws without even changing position.  But wait, this flower just keeps on giving.  Each flower later turns into a seed that birds and people seek and crave.

Sunflower head

Mammoth Sunflower head florets turn into seeds. Birds–and people–love them as snacks. Photo by Nicolas Rivard

I like to start Mammoth Sunflower seeds inside in January and transplant them to the butterfly garden in March.  By May, the stalky giants can reach 12 feet tall, their broad, foot-wide faces perching in the front yard like soldiers offering a welcome salute.  They lose their perky dispositions in June, as their heads drop and seeds form in place of the flowers.  All this for a $1.29 a pack and a regular drink of water.

Dried sunflower head ready for harvest.

Dried sunflower head ready for harvest. Photo by Nicolas Rivard

If their massive heads, ample flowers and prodigious seeds don’t convince you of their worth, how about heliotropism?  Sunflowers exhibit the endearing botanical trait of tracking the sun.  Their happy flowers faces literally turn toward the sun as it moves across the sky.  They drop their heads at the end of the day as the sun sets, and aptly, at the end of their life.

Scrape sunflower seeds from the flower head with a spoon. Photos by Nicolas Rivard

Once the flowers go to seed, you can leave them in place on the hung heads and birds will perch on the stalks and help themselves.  As the seeds dry, they disburse to the ground, where fowl, squirrels and other critter friends gather them for a handy protein pop.  One tablespoon of sunflower seeds has 4.5 grams of protein.

It’s also fun to harvest the seeds yourself for your own trail mix, to fill your bird feeder, or to plant next year.   Seven Mammoth Sunflowers I planted in my front yard this spring yielded 1.25 pounds of seed.

Common sunflowers on the San Antonio Mission Reach were prolific this year. Photo by Robert Rivard

The Mammoth Sunflower is the state flower of Kansas, but Texas has its own wonderful natives.  The Common Sunflower, Helianthus annus, may be the most common and provides prime habitat for dove and quail.   Their gangly growth habit often doesn’t fit into our home garden landscape plans, but the San Antonio Mission Reach has given the hardy, brown-centered bloomer a worthy showcase this year with well-timed rains.  Birds and butterflies have noticed and abound.   Also present: Maximilian Sunflower, Helianthus maximilianis, which has a more vertical growth habit and yellow centers.

Here’s how to harvest sunflower seeds:

1.  Wait for the heads to drop, all the sunflower petals have fallen off,  and the backside of the sunflower has turned yellow or even brown.

2. Cut about a foot of stalk off the top.

3. Scrape the seeds out with a spoon or butter knife, as shown in the video above, OR if you’re more patient,

Put a net or brown paper bag over the flower head and wait for the seeds to drop on their own.

4.  Air dry for future use.

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Desperately Seeking Milkweed: Monarch Butterfly Caterpillars’ Voracious Appetites Create Milkweed Emergency

Anyone have any emergency milkweed? The 30 or so caterpillars have totally stripped mine and the nurseries don’t seem to have any. I really don’t want to lose them. –T. Kinsey, San Antonio

I, too, have run out of food (asclepias tuberosa) for my Monarch caterpillars. I have approximately 14 caterpillars ranging from the 1st through the 5th instar. The little ones can’t eat the hard stem, which is all that is left. I am scrambling around asking everyone I know if they have any butterfly milkweed and so far, no luck.  –C. Nugen, Stephenville

I have a great number of monarch caterpillars on the milkweed plants in my garden,  more than I have ever seen!! Only thing is,  I think there are more than there is food. Will they find nearby plants to eat or start eating the stems of the plant? Please help as I am bit worried that they will not all get to the next life stage.  –L. Jarvis, San Antonio

Monarch butterflies have been arriving in the “Texas funnel” for weeks, laying their first generation of eggs on milkweeds in yards, gardens, and throughout the state.  But judging from emails, text and Facebook messages I’ve been getting, we just don’t seem to have enough milkweed to keep up with their voracious appetites.  The creatures eat 200x their birthweight in milkweed leaves by the time they bust their stripes to form their gold-flecked jade chrysalises.

The milkweed shortage appears to be the result of the Monarchs’ early arrival and crazy weather this year.  When the Monarchs arrived in March, a lot of wild milkweed wasn’t even out of the ground yet.    The wet, mild winter provoked a bountiful wildflower showing, creating serious competition from more aggressive species.   Then we had a slew of 80- and 90-degree days that sped up growth of both the caterpillars and plants.   Result?  Lots of caterpillars and not enough food.

What to do if you find yourself with dozens of hungry caterpillars and no milkweed for them to feast on?  If  you don’t have access to milkweed in the wild nor from fellow gardeners, your best bet is to call local nurseries and ask if they have any Asclepias in stock.   Be sure to ask for Asclepias, the scientific name, since it’s not unusual for nurseries to sell “butterfly bush” or “butterfly weed” which are great nectar plants (often in the Buddleia family) for all types of butterflies, but useless for hosting Monarchs or other milkweed feeders.

Next, tell the nursery staff that you are raising caterpillars.   That means the plants you purchase for caterpillar food must be free of systematic pesticides.  Nursery staff will often swear they have not sprayed anything on the plants, but that doesn’t mean the grower didn’t.

Fat and happy Monarch cats devoured Sharon Sander's milkweed

Fat and happy Monarch cats devoured Sharon Sander's milkweed patch

Two friends experienced this difficult lesson in the past week.  Sharon Sander emailed with joyous photos of hundreds of Monarch caterpillars decimating the milkweed patch  at the River Road Community Garden.  Sander asked if I had any extra milkweed.  Since I did not, I encouraged her to seek out pesticide-free milkweed at one of our local nurseries.

Beautiful Asclepias Curassavica from Shades of Green turned out to be full of pesticides

Beautiful Asclepias Curassavica from Shades of Green turned out to be full of pesticides

Sander located milkweed at Shades of Green Nursery in San Antonio.  She explained to nursery staff that she was raising caterpillars and was told no systematic pesticides had been used.   She brought the plants home and moved 200 caterpillars to the robust plants.

The next day, “They all died,” Sander wrote via text message.  Sander contacted Shades of Green, an excellent nursery, and was given pesticide-free replacement plants.  Still, a sad lesson.

Wendy Meyer, co-manager of Shades of Green was very apologetic about the incident and said that unbeknownst to Shades of Green, the grower had used the pesticide Dursban (chlorpyrifos) on the milkweed plants.  Supposedly Dursban dissipates in 10-14 days, but in the meantime is readily absorbed into the plant tissue and anything that eats the plant.

Boo-hoo! Dead Monarch caterpillars fall victim to pesticide laced milkweed

Boo-hoo! Dead Monarch caterpillars fall victim to pesticide laced milkweed

Jenny Singleton of Grapevine relayed a similar story.  Upon leaving town for vacation, she stocked up on milkweed for the hungry Monarch caterpillars she was leaving behind.  “I went to my favorite nursery to buy more milkweed and left the new, full plants next to the eaten up ones,” Singleton wrote in an email. “Checked on them this AM and to my horror, I’ll bet 75% were dead! I was sick!”

Unfortunately, nurseries don’t always know their growers as well as they  should.  And most plant shoppers won’t buy plants with bugs on them.   Milkweed plants are an ecosystem unto themselves and attract aphids, milkweed beetles, milkweed bugs, various flies and wasps.  Pesticides will kill all these pests–as well as Monarch eggs and caterpillars. It’s a challenge for growers who are often inclined to spray plants immediately before shipping to make them attractive and insect free to shoppers.

Tropical milkweed is easy to grow

Tropical milkweed is easy to grow

If you don’t know the provenance of your host plants, the best solution is to GYO (grow your own) milkweed.  Milkweed flowers develop a plump seed pod.  Tropical milkweed, while not native, is easy to grow and a Monarch butterfly magnet.  Remove the seeds from the milkweed fluff and sow in pots or the garden.  We’ll detail that process in a future post.

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