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?
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.
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.
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.
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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