I know many of you are still buried under many inches of snow and experiencing arctic temperatures that just won’t seem to quit. But today is the first day of March, and spring really will be here before too much longer. I’m very lucky, because it’s already spring in Central Florida. We’re past the danger of frosts and freezes, and most of our days are now in the 70s. Butterfly activity in my garden is starting to pick up, although some species like monarchs have been busy all winter long, making butterfly gardening a very rewarding activity.
Florida is home to one of the world’s stationary populations of monarchs. Our butterflies do not migrate to Mexico in the winter, and they continue to mate and lay eggs throughout the year. There are several of these “pocket populations” around the world, including California (although that population does have some winter migration – learn more here), Central America, Bermuda, Hawaii and Australia. The most famous monarch population, though, is the central North American migratory group, which winters in the mountains of Mexico and returns to spread out from Texas to Canada each summer. (Learn more about this migration here.)
As you may have already heard, this population of monarchs is in trouble. In recent years, their numbers have plummeted alarmingly, to the point where scientists are concerned their numbers may no longer be sustainable. While Mexico has taken some some responsibility by protecting monarch wintering grounds from logging, that’s only part of the issue. The rest of the problem, most scientists agree, is the lack of milkweed in the United States. This is the only plant that monarch caterpillars can eat, but some farmers, ranchers, and homeowners spent most of the 20th century trying to eradicate it from their holdings. As a result, today’s migrating monarchs face large “deserts” where no milkweed is available for them to lay their eggs. And this is where we can all help out.
The answer, on your part at least, is pretty easy: plant milkweed (Asclepias). There are over 100 species, so find the ones that are native to your area, and plant as much as you can. Once the monarchs find it, the plants won’t be pretty – the caterpillars will chew up the leaves and leave the plants looking ragged and defoliated. But in return, you’ll get monarch eggs, caterpillars, and butterflies – up to three generations each summer depending on how far north you live. This is what butterfly gardening is all about. You’ll be doing your part to help this iconic butterfly continue to return to a large piece of the United States and southern Canada each year. If you’re going to start some from seed, now is a good time – you can have well-established plants by the time spring finally arrives and butterflies return. Do a web search for “milkweed seeds” to find plenty of options, including some places that will send them to you for free or a very minimal donation (as low as $1 in some cases!).
Last summer, many people noted that although they had plenty of milkweed in their gardens, no monarchs ever showed up. That was sadly true for many locations; last summer’s monarch numbers were very low, and some people never saw any at all. (See this post I wrote last fall for more info.) But that doesn’t mean you should give up. Keep planting milkweed, every year, as much as possible. You never know when monarchs will find you again, and it’s much better to be prepared.