Monarch butterflies and milkweed, enjoy a complicated relationship.
You know the type. It’s a scenario in which the two mutual parties are co-dependent upon one another. Of course, that level of dependency is fraught with pitfalls.
The majestic monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus), is strikingly royal in appearance, and yet these delicate creatures migrate 6,000 miles roundtrip, from Mexico to Canada and back, every year.
The majestic monarch is dependent on one plant to repopulate:
The humble milkweed plant, (Asclepias syriaca).
Which Came First… The Monarch or the Milkweed?
Researchers describe the relationship between monarch butterflies and milkweed as symbiotic. This relationship status stems from the fact that the butterflies are one of the primary pollinators of the milkweed.
And, according to research conducted recently by the University of Iowa, the monarch butterfly needs the native milkweed species not only as delicious nectar but also to host their eggs and larvae.
Once the monarch eggs hatch into caterpillars, they rely solely on milkweed for their nourishment. Therefore, the larvae will not survive without milkweed.
No milkweed, no monarch butterflies.
A weed is simply a plant whose virtues have not been discovered.
~Ralph Waldo Emerson, essayist, poet, 1803-1882
The Decline of the Monarch Butterfly
If you’ve paused to wonder why you don’t see as many monarchs pass to grace your garden as often as you used to, there’s a serious reason.
The monarch butterfly is in a rapid population decline. Some estimate a staggering drop of as much as 90% of the total population.
The US Fish and Wildlife Service explains that they estimate a count of monarch butterflies in conjunction with the Mexican government. All monarchs migrate to a small region in Mexico every year to over-winter there.
There, about sixty miles from Mexico City, Mexican officials have established a 138,000 acre monarch butterfly reserve, and scientists use technology to determine a total count.1
The reserve stretches across 12 mountains in Central Mexico. With all the monarch in this small area, Mexican scientists describe the trees as orange because they are brimming with butterflies.
“Butterflies…flowers that fly and all but sing.”
~Robert Frost, American poet
Are Monarchs Endangered?
Still, in spite of this fantastic monarch reserve in Mexico, the situation is grim.
In 2014, the US Fish and Wildlife Service was petitioned to enact Endangered Species status for the butterflies. Their researchers have spent the past five years studying these creatures.
The final decision on whether to invoke endangered species status for monarch butterflies is due in June of 2019. You can get a copy of the timeline of this endangered species petition here.
The monarch butterfly is native to North America–spending summers in the US and Canada and wintering in Mexico They don’t exist anyplace else. Should we not be concerned about their survival?
What’s Causing the Monarch Butterfly Decline?
So, you might now be wondering about the cause of the monarch’s sharp population drop. Scientists have pinpointed two primary reasons.
Reason for the destruction of milkweed plants and climate change.
The Diminishing Milkweed
Remember earlier I stated that there’s a co-dependency between monarch butterflies and milkweed? Not only are the numbers of monarchs decreasing, but milkweed is also in decline.
We humans have decided that milkweed is a weed and began removing it from our gardens, spraying it with chemicals, and destroying the monarch’s most essential resource.2
Add to that the commercialization of America. As urban areas have sprawled miles out from city centers, areas that were once fields filled with milkweed are now parking lots and malls. Milkweed is often destroyed in favor of lawns and ornamental plants, because… well, because it’s a weed after all.
But where does that leave the monarch butterfly?
The reason that the monarchs winter in Mexico each year is the warm climate. Monarchs cannot survive cold temperatures.
In the past twenty years, a previously unheard-of phenomenon occurred in Central Mexico… snow! This was documented on three separate occasions: in 2002, 2012, and 2017.
Monarch Decline Statistics
We’ve done deep research on the exact percentage of monarch decline. However, there are so very many variables across all of the studies and numbers of decline are quite varied, from 14.8% between 2017-2018 to between 80 and 97% over the past 20 years.
Tracking on monarch population is very complicated and hard to pinpoint exactly. So in general, we recommend you not assume any statistic you hear is exactly right. To get an idea of the complexity is to begin reading the studies, and to observe how comparisons aren’t all comparing the same periods or specifics.https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2018/11/181108091259.htm
While the monarch decline stats vary wildly, they all agree on one thing: the monarch butterfly is in severe decline.
Right now, you’re probably wondering what you can do to help these magnificent creatures survive.
Ways to Attract Monarch Butterflies to Your Yard and Garden
- Plant milkweed
- Plant bright colored flowers
- Create a “puddle” bath
But don’t pull on those gardening gloves just yet, take a look at the little changes you can make to create an oasis for monarch butterflies in your yard.
Create Opportunities for Puddling
Have you ever witnessed butterflies flicking in and out of mud puddles, looking like they are having a blast?
This is called puddling or mud-puddling. They are drinking the water and much more.
Monarchs and other common garden butterflies instinctively perform this acrobatic dance to absorb the minerals from the mud!
This also provides them a spot to cool down in the hottest months.
Even if you live in an arid climate, you can provide a puddle to attract birds, bees, and butterflies.
Here’s how you can create a puddle:
Remove the drip tray from a terra cotta pot. Block the drainage hole with waterproof tape from the bottom. Clog the top of it by packing it with dirt and pebbles. Put this near your butterfly garden.
See! You created a human-made puddle for your winged friends.
Plant a Variety of Brightly Colored Flowers to Attract Monarchs
Monarchs are attracted to vibrant colors like red, orange, yellow, blue, and purple. They consume the nectar and pay you back by pollinating your garden!
Check out the GardensAll list of 17 plants that attract butterflies and lure monarchs into your garden.
Grow Milkweed Essential for the Survival of Monarch
Most of all, welcome the once-banished milkweed back into your garden! Don’t want it to overtake your prized specimens? Plan a natural area with native plants and milkweed.
But, know that not all milkweed are alike.
According to an article by the US Department of Agriculture, there are over 100 milkweed species in the United States. Of those, there are relatively few which benefit the monarch butterfly population.
We’ve scoured the USDA website and compiled a resource list so you can see which milkweed varieties serve as hosts for monarch caterpillars.
Monarchs like variety: Female monarchs laid 2.5 times more eggs when there were multiple species of milkweeds present compared to only one.
Monarch’s Favorite Milkweed
Monarchs favor a variety of milkweeds, and in fact, with variety they’ll lay more eggs. However, when given a choice, their favorite milkweed by far, is the Asclepias incarnata, common name: Swamp milkweed
The monarch’s top 4 favorite milkweed species are bolded in the list below.
The winner is the Asclepias incarnata, common name: Swamp milkweed
- Asclepias amplexicaulis
- Asclepias arenaria
- Asclepias asperula
- Asclepias californica
- Asclepias cryptoceras
- Asclepias curassavica
- Asclepias engelmanniana
- Asclepias eriocarpa
- Asclepias erosa
- Asclepias fascicularis
- Asclepias glaucescens
- Asclepias hirtella
- Asclepias incarnata (females laid 1.7x more eggs on A.incarnata vs. A.syriaca)
- Asclepias latifolia
- Asclepias linaria
- Asclepias oenotheroides
- Asclepias ovalifolia
- Asclepias pumila
- Asclepias purpurascens
- Asclepias quadrifolia
- Asclepias speciosa
- Asclepias stenophylla
- Asclepias subulata
- Asclepias subverticillata
- Asclepias sullivantii
- Asclepias syriaca – (females laid 9x more eggs on A. syriaca than on A. tuberosa)
- Asclepias tuberosa – (females laid 14.9x more eggs on A.incarnata than on A. tuberosa)
- Asclepias variegata
- Asclepias verticillata (female monarchs laid 4.5x more eggs on A.incarnata than on A. verticillata)
- Asclepias vestita
- Asclepias viridiflora
- Asclepias viridis
- Calotropis procera
Do your research and find the milkweed sub-species that will thrive in your climate and watch the monarch butterflies find sanctuary in your yard.
Make Room for Milkweed!
Named after Asclepius, the Greek god of healing, when it comes to health and healing, milkweed is a mixed blessing.
If you break off a milkweed leaf or stem, you’ll see an oozing thick white milky substance. That’s a latex, in milkweed (similar to latex in dandelion) that contains cardiac glycosides, beneficial for… yep, you got it, strengthening the heart action.3
Medicinal Benefits of Milkweed
Milkweed can be used for medicinal remedies if you know what you’re doing, or under the guidance of a knowledgeable herbalist.
Native Americans taught early European settlers how to properly cook milkweed so that it could be safely eaten or externally applied.
- Wart removal – milkweed’s milky white latex sap applied topically to remove warts
- Dysentery – milkweed roots were chewed to cure dysentery
- Infusions of the roots and leaves were taken to:
- suppress coughs
- treat typhus fever and asthma
SOURCE: The Old Farmers Almanac
However, milkweed is also considered a poisonous plant, so care must be taken and used only by knowledgeable practitioners and/or in FDA approved medicines.
We can all help the monarchs by planting milkweed.
There’s an almost tangible connection between monarch butterflies and milkweed. Both are in a state of decline. And, they each need the other for their very survival.
Plant a butterfly garden, and you’ll help reverse the diminishing population of both monarch butterflies and milkweed.
I cannot imagine a world without monarch butterflies, can you?
“What the caterpillar calls the end of the world the master calls a butterfly.”~Richard Bach, American writer
Good News – Developments in Milkweed Farming
Milkweed is actually being farmed in some places, including a milkweed farm in Canada. They’re growing milkweed for the monarchs and then as a crop for the fiber that’s used for insulation, such as in apparel and other needs.
Good for the monarch, good for the planet and good for the farmer! We live the win-win-wins!
Products Made from Milkweed
- Honey – the distinctive milkweed is a prized treat
The plant’s silky fibers can be fashioned into:
- High-end insulation material for winter clothing
- Winter coats stuffed with milkweed fiber reached outdoor retailers in 2016, and sold for $800 or more apiece.
- The Canadian Coast Guard tried milkweed garb and liked it.
- Insulation and absorption for oil spills
The distinctive honey from milkweed flowers is a prized treat.
Let’s grow some milkweed for the monarchs and the honey bees!
Plant milkweed (especially Asclepias incarnata) to help the monarch butterflies!
Happy pollinators makes for happy plants!
Hi! My name is Deborah Tayloe. I’m a full-time freelance writer and blogger. I blog about my favorite things: gardening, cooking, and DIY. I live in a very rural area called Bertie County, North Carolina. Here, I have plenty of open space to pursue my gardening habit. I’m a regular contributor to GardensAll and publish my own blog, DIY Home & Garden.