Monarch Magnets

We’ve grown purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea) for many years. Once established, it’s a super-easy perennial, really only requiring weeding and occasional separation. It spreads quickly. By chance three years ago, we had some common milkweed (asclepias syriaca) show up in a clump of coneflowers we have growing by the light post in our driveway. Our normal reaction would have been to pull the milkweed out. It grows in some of the wilder part of the yard, but Judy had heard that some milkweed were endangered and that they were a plant that Monarch butterflies prefer, so we let it take over part of the area around the light post.

We already knew that Monarchs liked the coneflowers and we have not been disappointed in the results of having the two plants grown together. The monarchs find them. So do a lot of other insects, some good and some not so friendly. We get lots of pollinators, wasps and bees; we also get dragonflies and damsel flies, but last year a moth which I did not take the time to identify ravaged the foliage of the milkweed. I may make an effort this year to hand pick the moth caterpillars if they show up, again, which I expect is almost a certainty.

Several years ago we visited the monarch nesting grounds at the Monarch Butterfly Reserve of Sierra Chincua, Michoacan, Mexico. It’s now a protected sanctuary, but illicit logging is still doing damage to the pine forests where the amazing migration of the monarchs begins. If you aren’t aware, monarchs migrate from Mexico to parts all over North America. For most, it’s a several thousand mile trip and the butterflies go through several generations before they get back to the forests of Mexico to overwinter.

The day we visited the sanctuary it was unseasonably cold, which was our bad luck. In warmer weather there are millions of butterflies to be seen, but when it’s very cold, the butterflies form huge, beehive like clusters that hang from the trees. These clusters keep them warm. The clusters are very interesting, but obviously it would have been more fun to have seen the monarchs all flying about.

We have monarchs in our yard every year and it seems like we are seeing more with the addition of our little butterfly garden. The monarch ecosystem is very fragile, with the deterioration of the Mexican forests and loss of plant habitat all along their migration routes. So I hope we are doing our part by providing some friendly surroundings in our back yard.

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