Of Monarchs and Milkweeds

 

Monarch (photo: Miranda Kennedy)

 

The migration of the monarch butterfly covers an astounding 2500 miles.  Instead of dying off in the cold of winter, these flimsy, light-as-air insects fly from parts of the US to groves of Oyamel fir trees in Mexico.  They are the only insect to cover such territory.  They are particular little beasties, for they rest only in the Oyamel firs and look for milkweed plants on which to lay their eggs.  Milkweed exudes a sap toxic to animals which the Monarch caterpillars eat, obviously immune, making them toxic in turn.  The caterpiller’s bright coloration is a warning.

Snazzy stripes mean 'eat at your own risk' (photo: M. Kennedy

In fact, the Viceroy butterfly, which is very tasty to predators, mimics the Monarch’s coloration to keep from being dinner.

Deforestation, insects, climate change and pollution have cut a huge swath through the Oyamel fir tree population, and the Monarchs are struggling to survive.  They also combat the decrease in milkweed as human populations spread and plant lawns instead of weeds and wildflowers.

At the beginning of this year, in my efforts to change my property into habitat, I was determined to help the Monarchs. Every year I see maybe one or two of the majestic butterfly pass through my yard, and I’ve been sorry that I can’t offer he or she anything except nectar.

What I had been calling milkweed actually is sow thistle Sonchus oleraceus, which is an edible kitchen herb brought over from Europe with the settlers as food.  It also has a milky sap in it’s hollow stem, thus the erroneous name of milkweed. There are over 100 varieties of real milkweed.  So, I purchased two Balloon Plants, or Asclepias physocarpa (Asclepias is the botanical name for the milkweed family).  They grew quite well, developing the balloon-shaped seed pods which, when ripe, burst open spreading small seeds with feathery wings attached that carry them everywhere.

Seeds burst and fly

To my great excitement my daughter spotted very tiny Monarch caterpillars on the leaves!

Tiny Monarch caterpillers (photo: M. Kennedy)

The caterpillars have been eating voraciously and growing big and fat.

Monarch caterpiller and milkweed (Photo: M. Kennedy)

We’ve seen Monarchs in the yard many more times than in the past.  We are monitoring the caterpillars closely, waiting for them to metamorphosize.  I’ll help the plants distribute seeds throughout my yard, and I’ll plant the native narrow-leafed milkweed as well.  I’m so excited that within months this goal was achieved and that these wonderful creatures have one more place to find refuge.

Good links:Monarch Watch http://shop.monarchwatch.org/ ,   Monarch Migration  http://www.monarchbutterflyusa.com/Migration.htm.

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