We Need More Milkweed

I was driving through the northern U.S. to get to Boston and then drove back. I noted along the way, by the sides of the highways, there were many milkweeds, as well as dogbanes.

This will sound cliche, as it has been repeated many times over many years. So, please forgive me. I’d like to ask people, especially in the southern U.S. to plant more milkweed. The northern U.S. has kinda got it figured out. Boston had it everywhere, and so did the highways through New York, Jersey, and Connecticut. Please, plant more of the stuff. I’d like to see an uptick in their population.

Planting can be in your backyard, in natural areas, etc. I plan to plant some in my yard. I may also plant some in an open field by my school, and see if it takes. It’s a good spot for them. If we plant more and get more monarchs, this can also help other endangered species. Not only will it help by introducing the plant, but it’ll help us also figure out how to help other species.

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Avoid planting tropical milkweed (Asclepias curassavica) if it’s not a native species. It can be problematic.

Instead, focus on planting native milkweeds (Asclepiadoideae), filtering by your location.

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We need more native habitat, period. Milkweed alone is not a solution, because Monarchs (and bees, and other butterflies and pollinators) need goldenrod, blazing star, etc. for nectar.

The best thing to plant is what grows wild in your specific area, because that’s what the native pollinators need. Next best is what grows wild in your general area and biome (desert plants for the southwest, prairie plants for the midwest, etc).

New Mexico has more than 34 native milkweed and dogbane species, but garden centers don’t stock much beyond tuberosa, incarnata, and speciosa. Yes, it can be a bit overwhelming to figure out which of the tens of thousands of native plants in North America are native to your particular region and appropriate for your altitude, microclimates, soil type, and gardening tendencies. For example, my county has habitat from riparian areas along the Rio Grande (golden currant, Torrey’s wolfberry, willows, Rio Grande cottonwood, dock, yerba mansa, saltbush) to desert foothills (Pinyon, Juniper, Mountain Mahogany, Apache Plume, prickly pear, rabbitbrush, cholla, yucca, Turbinella oak) to mixed and sub-alpine coniferous forests (spruce, fir, cinquefoil, aspen, Penstemon, goldenrod, Gambel’s oak, Heuchera, Erigeron). The only milkweeds native to my neighborhood are A latifolia and subverticillata, neither of which are Monarch hosts, but both great for attracting other native fauna.

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Yes to more native habitat! For anyone who feels overwhelmed about choosing native plants, check out the National Wildlife Federation’s Native Plant Finder. You can search to see which plants support the most species in your zipcode or see which plants support particular butterflies. It’s based on research by Dr. Doug Tallamy. https://www.nwf.org/NativePlantFinder

Local native plant societies and Audubon chapters often have useful lists as well.

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We nurtured some seedlings that appeared in our front garden into a nice sized patch. It looked healthy, we’re on a quiet cul de sac and see monarchs regularly. But six years along and not even a sign of a monarch egg or caterpillar and rarely even an adult in the milkweed patch. We have given up!

And we’re along the path (south shore of Lake Ontario). We’ve even had years where hundreds have swarmed onto a few branches of a silver maple in the backyard before a big storm. But the milkweed patch? No interest at all.

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I recommend Monarch Milkweed Mapper. People upload observations of monarchs and milkweeds – a bit like iNaturalist, except that there are more data fields to fill in such as estimated number of plants present, type of habitat the sighting was in, etc. I have a couple of milkweed observations on there myself, despite seldom encountering wild milkweed in my area.

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Yes! Milkweed alone is not the solution. If we want to keep the migration going, the butterflies also need fall bloomers to fuel up for the trip. Not just single flowers here and there, but patches of color in the landscape that the migrating butterflies can see from high up, so grouping plants by flower color in the yard is a good strategy. It always saddens me to see people mow down their goldenrod meadows right before fall migration starts in earnest.

Also, seeing dogbane mentioned in several comments, just a note that while dogbane looks very similar to milkweed and is a great pollinator plant, it is not a host plant for monarchs. If you mistake it for milkweed and try to feed dogbane to monarch caterpillars they will starve to death. It can also be an aggressively weedy plant, so I wouldn’t recommend using it in a small garden setting.

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For the gardeners - I have been reading Benjamin Vogt for years (not relevant to me in CPT but the general Plant Locally Indigenous for Biodiversity)

https://www.monarchgard.com/what-we-believe.html

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My new tactic is just letting my gardens be wild. I’ve planted lots of stuff but anything else the comes up that is native and isn’t just going to take over the whole space, I just let it grow. I’ve got golden rod and asters and campion and all kinds of things making my garden their home. I only keep one small space for non natives because I don’t think I can live without the scent of lilacs. If we allow it nature will come back all on its own.

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Agreed. One thing that can be done is leaving at least one part of your yard alone, never touching it with a lawnmower or insecticides(although removing nonnative invasive species is plenty alright). Let nature take over. Its inhabitants will follow.

This book describes that topic.
https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_World_Without_Us

I’m a little hesitant about leaving a part of my yard to Nature completely… at least, based on the more naturally tended yards in my neighborhood. They seem to encorage fewer of the natives and more of the weeds like: Prickly Lettuce (Lactuca serriola), Spurges (Anisophyllum), and Sweetclover (Melilotus).

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Depends on your area and the species. All sandmats I’ve seen in New Mexico are native and visited by bees (Perdita and Lasioglossum), ants, fruit flies, and true bugs. Even milkweeds, like A syriaca, can be very aggressive, so manage your garden as you see fit.

Last weekend, Melilotus in my garden had Apis, Bombus, Megachile, marine blue butterflies, and Prionyx wasps despite being non-native. My preference is for as native as possible, but some flowers are better than none!

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Let me rephrase my statement, leave a part of your yard as untouched as possible when possible. Encourage native species as possible.

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Or just maintain your yard(or garden)with native species included.

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I did that: I found some amazing things can happen! I got dogbane that just randomly sprung up, and some goldenrod too, also some morning glory.

I’ll plant milkweed in my yard for next year, we actually have a big population of monarchs here.

I live amongst farming. We have gorgeous roadsides full of milkweed and so many other host plants. What we need is less chemicals sprayed. Pre-emergent plant killers, pesticides, anti-mildew…on and on. The other danger with roadside host plants is when the mower comes. That’s when I pull plants and rescue as many caterpillars as I can. We have fewer butterflies.(I confirmed this with the mailman, who covers several miles in our area.)

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