Bad news: Everyone loves monarch butterflies, but their habitats are declining so they are at risk. Good news: You can help by creating a monarch “pit stop” in your garden! Helping monarchs is easier than you think, whether you have a large backyard garden or just a sunny balcony. Find out how to create a Monarch Waystation from Smithsonian Gardens’ Horticulturist Sarah Dickert.
- Monarch Watch: info on waystation program, tagging, plant lists, milkweed sources, & educational resources
- National Wildlife Federation Native Plant Finder: excellent source to find native plants using your zip code, can also search plants to support specific butterflies & moths, links to native plant suppliers
- Monarch Joint Venture: collection of organizations & agencies working to save monarchs, use page for “Individual” for plant list and add’tl resources
- Xerces Society: articles with info & stats on monarch decline, milkweed sources, & plant lists
- USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service: search “monarch” in search bar to get to monarch page, geared toward land management & conservation in mid-west/Great Plains states
- Agastache (Anise Hyssop): generally purple flowers; new varieties in reds, oranges, and yellows
- Verbena bonariensis (Verbena): not native to North America, not hardy north of Zone 7. The native verbena is Verbena hastata.
- Lobelia cardinalis (Cardinalflower): generally red flowers, newer varieties with dark foliage or pink flowers, tolerates wet soil, gets 3-4ft. tall
- Lobelia siphilitica (Blue Cardinalflower): 2-3ft. tall, blue flowers, long bloom time, also good for wet soil
- Penstemon (Beardtongue): several varieties available, earlier bloomer
- Eutrochium [syn. Eupatorium] (Joe Pye Weed): try shorter variety ‘Little Joe’ (3-4’ tall)
- Pycnanthemum muticum (Blunt Mountain Mint): pollinator all-star! Literally covered with all kinds of pollinators, in the mint family so it does spread but can be pulled to maintain clump, grow in a pot to control spread
- Vernonia (Iron Weed): purple fall bloomer; noveboracensis (New York Iron Weed) gets tall (4-6ft.); lettermannii ‘Iron Butterfly’ gets 2-3 ft. tall
- Echinacea (Coneflower): popular, versatile perennial; lots of color and height combinations available; also consider sp. pallida – recommended variety ‘Hula Dancer’
- Liatris (Blazing Star): ‘Kobold’ popular garden variety, bold purple flower spikes, 3-4 ft. tall
- Monarda (Bee Balm): many cultivars available, wide range of heights and colors (ranging from purple to red to pink); sp. fistulosa is great for pollinators; all monardas are in the mint family so they are definite spreaders, also prone to powdery mildew, some newer cultivars are less susceptible (including fistulosa)
- Symphyotrichum (Aster): great fall blooms for migrating monarchs, several species and cultivars to choose from
- Solidago (Goldenrod): gorgeous yellow flowers to pair with asters and sedums; again, several species cultivars to choose from; NOT the cause of fall allergies (ragweed is to blame!)
- Lantana: butterfly magnet! blooms all summer long
- Zinnias: choose single flower varieties (daisy-like) instead of double flowering
- Pentas (Egyptian Star Flower): large round flower clusters; available in reds, pinks, whites, and light purples
- Tithonia (Mexican Sunflower): try ‘Torch,’ a slightly shorter variety- about 4’ tall vs. 6’ for straight species
- Helianthus (Sunflower): easy to grow from seed
- Marigolds: classic annual, keep them dead-headed so they rebloom all summer
- Salvia: recommend ‘Amistad’, ‘Love & Wishes’, ‘Black and Bloom’- they get huge! Also attracts hummingbirds
- Gomphrena (Globe Flower): ‘Fireworks’ gets huge with tons of pink ball flowers on the end of long stems; shorter varieties available for containers or bed borders
- Herbs: great for pollinators and monarchs with the bonus of herbs to use
Q: What should I use to spray on aphids and milkweed bugs?
A: Try to avoid using any chemicals to remove aphids or milkweed bugs as even “safe” sprays can unintentionally harm monarch eggs or larva, or harm other beneficial insects. Use the “jet” spray of a hose to remove aphids and repeat the process as needed until they do not return. Milkweed bugs, though they eat milkweed plants, generally do not cause that much damage. What damage they do cause should be tolerated as it will not affect the amount of milkweed available to monarchs. Remove leaf litter and spent stalks in the fall to reduce the population of milkweed bugs in your garden since they overwinter as adults.
Q: I was told to cut off flowers and seed pods to get more leaves for the caterpillars. Is this a good idea?
A: It is not a good or bad idea but removing the flowers and seed pods will have two different effects. Cutting off flowers will help encourage branching on the plant, which in turn results in more leaves. The downside is that many pollinators use the flowers as nectar. If you’re concerned about providing enough leaves, it would be better to plant multiple milkweed plants rather than prune so that pollinators can still use the flowers. Removing the seed pods (aka deadheading) will only encourage more flowers; it will not cause branching and more leaves. However, deadheading the pods will help keep the seeds from spreading in your garden and potentially becoming weedy. Most people choose to allow the flowers and pods to remain on the plants.
Q: Do ants hurt my milkweed? How do I get rid of them?
A: No, ants do not hurt milkweed. They are usually present because they are “farming” the aphids that are also present so they can eat the sap produced by the aphids. Aphids, however, do eat milkweed. The best control is to use the “jet” spray of a hose to hose off the insects daily and repeat the process as needed until they do not return. Once the aphids are gone, the ants will leave too.
Q: Should I bring my caterpillars inside to take care of them?
A: As a general rule, no. Though they may be at risk for predation in your garden, they will be much more successful if they remain outside. Most people do not provide enough milkweed to keep them alive inside, so they end up dying anyway. And even if they stay alive to morph into a butterfly, once they are released outdoors there is no protecting them from predators, including things like car grills.
Q: Is tropical milkweed harmful to plant?
A: Tropical milkweed (Asclepias curassavica) is not harmful in of itself. However, it does pose a few risks to monarchs that may be feeding on it since it is not native to North America. See the recording of this webinar for a full explanation of the issues related to tropical milkweed and monarchs.
Q: How do you control pests on plants without harming cats and butterflies?
A: The best and safest way is by physically removing the pest such as with a hose or picking them off by hand. That will pose the least threat to pets and other native insects. Sometimes it also means learning to live with plants that have a few holes in their leaves. Often natural predators will take care of pests if you just leave the plants alone.
Q: What native plants attract butterflies?
A: See the plant list above for a suggested list of native plants that attract monarchs and other butterflies. Monarchwatch.org also has an extensive list of plants for butterflies (not just monarchs). The Native Plant Finder website can help you select plants for specific butterflies you may want to attract. (Links for both of those sites are listed above.)
Q: What color flowers do butterflies prefer?
A: Butterflies often prefer “hot” colors like reds, oranges, and yellows. However, you’re just as likely to find them on the purple flowers of Agastache, Liatris, or Verbena.
Q: How many milkweed plants should I plant?
A: There is no specific rule of thumb for how many to plant, especially if you are constrained by using containers on a patio or balcony. That being said, I would recommend three plants to get yourself started. The Monarch Watch organization recommends at least 10 plants for a 100 sq.ft. space, but that amount is if you are trying to create a certified monarch waystation, so judge accordingly for the space you have available. Monarch caterpillars can eat A LOT of milkweed; 2 or 3 could eat an entire A. tuberosa plant. At the end of the day, one milkweed is better than none but the more the merrier for the monarchs!
Q: I can never find the chrysalis on my milkweed. Do the caterpillars move to other plants?
A: That is correct, caterpillars don’t usually form the chrysalis on milkweed but on a nearby plant, fence, doorway, etc. It can be a treasure hunt to discover them!
Q: Is Neem safe to spray? Does it hurt pollinators like butterflies?
A: Most pesticides, including organic pesticides like Neem, do not discriminate between species. It is possible to harm butterflies when using them, especially when they are in the egg or caterpillar stage.
Q: My neighbor sprays pesticides. How far does the spray go?
A: Spray drift is always a concern. It is impossible to say how far the spray will go; it depends on several factors including the wind speed, temperature, size of the spray droplets, and how far they are spraying from your property border.
Q: Should we compost the tropical Asclepias or put it in the trash when it is removed from the garden?
A: It is probably safer to put in the trash so that there is no risk of the monarch parasite living through to the next year and potentially moving to healthy Asclepias in the spring.
Q: Do Monarchs lay eggs on the tops and bottoms of leaves?
A: I have only seen eggs on the undersides of leaves, but I am not sure if that is a “rule” for the egg location.
Q: What are some plant suggestions for part-sun?
A: Asters, Chelone, Amsonia ‘Blue Ice’, Geranium maculatum, and Solidago.
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