I am going to begin this essay with a personal story. Yesterday was a gorgeous blue and gold day and I was walking through my milkweed-strewn field when suddenly I discovered a baby monarch caterpillar chewing up a leaf… I was just starting new research for this essay and so I was very excited. This year I had already planned to raise another monarch as I have done for most of my life – and here he was! I carefully removed the milkweed stalk, added others, and brought them up the hill to place in a bucket. I planned to raise this one outdoors as has been my custom. Then I came in to work on my research… needless to say, I was simply horrified to learn that scientists are now saying that it may put the monarch at risk to hand raise them. I checked other sources with the same result. I went out to see my little friend, thinking I had best return him to the field as fast as I could and he was gone!

Oh no, I was distraught. I came back in with a heavy heart that I couldn’t shake all day. Why do I have to keep learning again and again that nature takes care of her own without my help, even though I rarely interfere? Last night, returning from a walk with my dogs, I casually checked his nearby milkweed patch – and lo – there he was, munching on a leaf, warming in the sun! I quickly took a picture and then moved closer to inspect my little friend, and he simply dropped off the leaf and disappeared out of sight! Enough of this predator; the message couldn’t have been more clear. As I came down the driveway, I realized the little fellow had made a long arduous journey up the hill to rooted milkweed, no doubt guided by scent.

He must have been exhausted. But what choice did he have? His field was a quarter of a mile away. I was relieved but still worried. Monarch caterpillars like full sun and this batch didn’t have it. This morning I couldn’t find him – the sun doesn’t hit this particular milkweed patch until after 10 a.m. When the sun rose over the trees, I went back to check and he had moved to another plant that was getting full sun. I apologized profusely, telling him that I was so sorry to have behaved so stupidly but that I just didn’t know…  then I left him, unable to decide whether moving him back to the field was what I should do, or perhaps it would be better to let him be? It soon became apparent that this little caterpillar was perfectly happy where he was, so this little story has a happy ending! Just yesterday I watched him nibbling down a milkweed pod. Perhaps when the time comes I might even find the chrysalis.

But you can be sure I will never move a monarch caterpillar again. This little fellow taught me a powerful, painful lesson that I needed to learn… again! Nature does not need my help!

Monarch caterpillars feed exclusively on the leaves of milkweed, the only host plant for this iconic butterfly species. As such, milkweed is critical for survival. Without it, they cannot complete their life cycle. Simple.


Indeed, eradication of milkweed both in agricultural areas as well as in urban and suburban landscapes is one of the primary reasons that monarchs are in trouble today (it used to grow wild throughout this country from coast to coast.).

The good news is that planting milkweed is one of the easiest ways that each of us can make a difference. There are several dozen species of this wildflower native to North America, so no matter where you live, there is at least one milkweed species naturally found in your area.

Planting local milkweed species is always best. You can collect your own seed, or purchase seed or plants to add to your garden, or to any landscape. Three species have particularly wide ranges and are good choices in most regions: common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca), swamp milkweed (A. incarnata), and butterfly weed (A. tuberosa). The latter two are highly ornamental and widely available via the nursery trade.

Note: Tropical milkweed, (Asclepias curassavica), available at many retail nurseries is not native to the U.S. However it has naturalized in the Southeastern U.S. Science is discovering that its long bloom time may have some detrimental effects on monarch migration and possibly be a source to spread disease within monarch populations. If you do have tropical milkweed in your garden in milder climates, it is recommended to cut the plant back in the winter months to encourage monarchs to move on to their natural overwintering sites and to prevent disease.

What follows are some salient suggestions for folks who want to improve the monarchs’ chances of survival.

1. Plant Lots of Milkweed


It bares repetition. Milkweed is the only plant monarch caterpillars eat. These caterpillars hatch from eggs laid on the plant before consuming its leaves. However, not just any kind of milkweed will do. The key is this: You must plant milkweed native to your area.

The reason? Planting non-native types of milkweed risks monarch butterfly health. In many areas, non-native, tropical milkweed survives through the winter, allowing ophryocystis elektroscirrha, a parasite that can be found on monarchs and milkweed, to build up to dangerous levels. By sticking with native milkweed, the parasite dies with the plant in the winter, ensuring that new milkweed grows with less risk from the parasite when monarch butterflies return in the spring.

You can purchase milkweed seeds, but please ask about the origin of both seeds and plants. Some have already been treated with pesticides.

Another option, if you have milkweed in your area is to harvest the plant yourself. To harvest seeds at the right time, make sure their pods pop open under light pressure or pick and dry unripe pods in a shaded attic room, like I do.

The best time to plant milkweed seeds is in the fall, so the cold temperatures and moisture that come with winter stimulate germination. In Abiquiu, the only place I ever had to plant milkweed to have some, I sowed the seeds in early November.

Milkweed should probably be planted in the sunniest parts of your yard or garden. In places like NM, protection from afternoon frying is probably a necessity. If you have a choice of soil, most milkweed species thrive in light, well-drained soils with seeds planted a quarter-inch deep. Since milkweed is a perennial, you can harvest the seeds from your new plants and grow them in other parts of your yard or garden the following year.


For places like Abiquiu, NM the only milkweed I found was the common Asclepias syrica, and then I only discovered a plant or two growing along the ditches shaded from the ferocity of the afternoon sun. However, when I harvested the seeds I planted them by a partially shaded drainage pipe near the house and they not only survived but multiplied. Note, they required daily watering.

Please Also Note: Tropical milkweed also called Mexican milkweed (Asclepias curassavica) is available at many retail nurseries but is not native to the U.S. However, it has naturalized in the Southeastern U.S. Science is discovering that its long bloom time may have some detrimental effects on monarch migration and possibly be a source to spread disease within monarch populations as already mentioned. If you do have tropical milkweed in your garden (It’s gorgeous), it is recommended that you cut the plant back in the winter months to encourage monarchs to move on to their natural overwintering sites and to prevent disease.

Once monarch caterpillars transform into bittersweet bright orange butterflies, they need the right food to survive and prepare them for their long winter migration to Mexico or the California coast.

Once again, be sure to include flowers that are native to your region, since these are plants monarchs have relied on and are suited to the local environment.

In Maine, it is easy and such a pleasure to visit the local MLT pollinator garden to look for monarch-friendly plants. In other areas, it’s important to do your homework to find out what plants do best in your particular area. My common milkweed grows wild and I have never interfered with this process. I have a field overflowing with it and it’s on my road just about everywhere (the latter I seeded in because I love walking past it – the scent is intoxicating!).

I grow bright orange butterfly weed around the house. Thanks to the MLT pollinator garden, I have fallen in love with A. incarnata and may try some here. Swamp milkweed is also next on my list to be planted at the edges of my favorite forest. Adult monarch favorites are Mexican Sunflowers, the color is beyond belief and monarchs love it. Liatrus is another good choice for monarchs, as is verbena, cosmos, or butterfly bush. There are so many possibilities. Start researching now!


2 Don’t Use Pesticides

This is such a no-brainer that I feel stupid writing the words but the shelves of our stores are full of these plant-hating products – Roundup is just one of a mass of deadly killers.

Neonicotinids also known as neonics, are particularly destructive. When applied, neonics spread throughout all parts of a plant, becoming dangerous for monarchs and every other living being, including humans. With monarchs, the outcome is always fatal.

Canada and the European Union banned the use of neonics, but the US still lives in the capitalistic, take the easiest way out, dark age mentality. These toxins continue to be used without restrictions in this country. If you must purchase yard and gardening products, avoid those with neonicotinoid ingredients including clothianidin, imidacloprid, thiamethoxam and dinotefuran, and neonic-like ingredients, such as flupyradifurone and sulfoxaflor.

Next week: Part 2

Comments are not available on this story.

filed under: