In Love with Monarchs
Enjoy these migratory marvels as they flutter in for the summer.
By Ann Wilson, Geneva, Illinois
Monarch photo by Karen Boucher
Whenever monarch butterflies sail through my gardens, I stop whatever I'm doing to watch their graceful journey. The orange-and-black silhouettes cast a mesmerizing spell as they flutter amid my trumpet vines, purple coneflowers and sedums.
My admiration is part childlike wonder and part appreciative awe. When I was a kid, the monarch was the first butterfly I learned to identify. Now, I also respect them for their amazing migratory prowess.
The ever-regal monarchs are indeed sovereigns of the sky, traveling thousands of miles each fall as they journey south from Canada and the United States to Mexico and coastal California. During the following spring, the butterflies' offspring make the return trip north, stopping in milkweed-rich prairies, fields and butterfly gardens to continue the breeding cycle. /p>
Across North America, summer-migrating monarchs will mate up to seven times to ensure the species' survival. Unfortunately, a monarch's lifespan is short—they're likely to live for only 2 to 6 weeks.
With 4-inch wingspans, monarchs are easily spotted as they glide through the landscape. They even boast distinct characteristics that allow perceptive observers to differentiate the sexes.
Male monarchs have raised black dots on their hind wings that store pheromones to attract females. Males also have thinner black veins than female monarchs. Because of their less-pronounced veins, males in flight will appear to be brighter in color than their duller-orange mates.
Catch the Metamorphosis
To attract monarchs to your garden, cultivate stands of milkweed (Asclepias species). Milkweed is the primary host plant for monarchs and supplies developing caterpillars with food. The plant also possesses bitter-tasting toxins, which protect both the caterpillar and adult monarch from predators.
The egg-to-butterfly process spans about a month, but may progress more quickly in warmer climates. A female monarch will lay nearly 400 creamy-hued eggs on the underside of milkweed leaves. Yellow-and-black-banded white caterpillars emerge from the eggs to feed on milkweed leaves. The caterpillars eventually hang upside down on twigs and turn into gold-dotted, jade-green chrysalises that develop into butterflies, which in turn sip milkweed nectar.
Monarch Watch, an organization dedicated to the preservation of the monarch, suggests people dedicate at least 15 square yards of sunny garden space to monarch-friendly plants to accommodate both their breeding and feeding needs. For more information on Monarch Watch, visit our Links Index.
Monarch photo by Dennis Connell.
Flowers They'll Love
In addition to cultivating milkweed plants, pack your borders with pink, purple, yellow, red and orange flowering perennials and annuals that supply nectar.
Twelve good monarch-magnet plants include: Joe Pye weed (Eupatorium purpureum)
, meadow and prairie blazing stars (Liatris ligulistylis
and Liatris pycnostachya)
, blue floss flower (Ageratum houstonianum)
, purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea)
, Mexican sunflower (Tithonia)
, black-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia)
, verbena, zinnia, cosmos, bee balm (Monarda)
, butterfly bush (Buddleja)
Create a truly hospitable haven by adding a few other butterfly amenities. Give monarchs a place to drink with a ground-level watering trough. (A small plate or a pile of sand with a shallow depression in it works well). And place flat stones amid plants to provide roosts for sun basking.
Then, just sit back and enjoy the monarch's colorful visits—this summer and for numerous years to come!