Monarch Musings, Part 2

Okay, if we’ve gotten through the tropical versus native asclepias issue without killing one another, here’s another issue that seems to be dividing folks: the home rearing or raising indoors or monarch chrysalises for later outdoor release.

At first glance, you think, how could anything about this be controversial? And indeed, one of Connecticut’s oldest and most respected organic nurseries not only does this but encourages others to do this.

But very recently–in the last week or so–it has come to light that monarchs that are hand-raised or home raised have difficulty migrating. There was a long article in the Atlantic that discussed various problems with the home raised butterfiles.

Here’s an article from late last year that both thoughtfully summarized the debate, the issues (including the tropical versus native milkweed issue from last Friday’s post) and even has some comments attached that shows how heated the discussion can get.

I don’t raise monarchs indoors. I have had them in my outdoor garden where I grow my native milkweed, asclepias incarnata (which goes by the lovely common name swamp milkweed. Is it a wonder more folks don’t grow this stuff?) I’ve watched the caterpillars crawl around on it–I even did a post last summer on it where I compared watching them to a form of “garden bathing” (like “forest bathing.”)

But I do have friends who raise monarchs. They love the hobby–and yes, they have lost some to disease. It’s been heartbreaking for them. Amazing how fast you get attached to little crawling caterpillars, I guess, particularly ones that you have watched hatch.

What’s the takeaway? I am not sure. I wish I thought we were helping nature. Perhaps someday we’ll learn how to get better at it. Until then, does that mean we shouldn’t try?

Monarch Musings, Part 1

When we talk about “pollinators” or “wildlife,” honeybees and monarch butterflies are two species that people seem to have heard the most about. Even people who don’t garden know that both species are in trouble and that efforts are being made to help each.

In the last couple of months, however, a couple of interesting things about the monarch and the ways people try to help them have come out. Today and Monday I will look at each one–trying not to get controversial about it–so that people can be informed.

Today I want to look at ascelepias–milkweed. We know that monarch butterflies need to lay their eggs on the milkweed plant and their caterpillars need to eat milkweed in order to live.

So in order to help the monarchs, gardeners have been encouraged to plant milkweed, and here’s where the problem begins.

As you might already know, there are many different varieties of milkweed. They are all asclepias, but depending on the variety, they can be “native” or “tropical.” And that’s where the problem began.

In some parts of the country, the tropical variety, asclepias curassavica, is more “common,”–or at least more readily available–than native varieties so gardeners planted those. (It didn’t help that a. curassavica is really pretty.)

Unfortunately caterpillars that feed on tropical milkweed are also eating fungal spores. They pass these on to migratory butterflies on their way up from Mexico and the population is weakened in the process.

It’s a lot more complicated than I have made it seem here. To read an in-depth study by the Xerxes Society, go here.

The takeaway from this: when it comes to asclepias, native really is best.

A Buggy Time of Year

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What on earth are you looking at? Good question. I spent all weekend trying to photograph the garden spider in its web (and its web).

It’s a lovely black, yellow and green spider that is hanging in its web by the black pot. You’re a better person than I am if you can spot it in the photo.

As I was scouring my 15 photos, trying to decide which one might look like something at least, I did see something that I completely overlooked IRL, as the kids say.

I knew that my parsley was getting eaten but we have had so many rabbits this year I just assumed it was rabbits. Silly me.

In the photo, I saw the real culprit and I was thrilled: there are swallowtail butterfly caterpillars on the parsley. Yay! I guess they feel safe nestled in there in among the other herbs. But wow, who would have expected the butterflies to find the parsley there?

Gardening for Butterflies

Gardening for butterflies is actually a two-step process, although you don’t have to participate in both parts of the process if you don’t want to. But remember, the adult butterflies that we see are first caterpillars–and those are the more finicky eaters that you hear about when you hear “monarchs will only eat milkweed,” for example.

It’s actually a little more complicated than that. The monarch caterpillars will only eat milkweed. Adult monarchs will seek nectar from a variety of flower sources. But when adult monarchs go back to lay eggs, again, they seek out milkweed. And again, in different regions of the country, different types of milkweed predominate.

So it’s not just as simple as saying “monarchs eat milkweed.” For more on this complicated–or symbiotic–relationship, take a look at this handout prepared by MonarchWatch.

Other butterflies are equally finicky, if you want to put it that way. Every butterfly that visits your area will have a “host” plant–that’s the plant that the caterpillar form of the butterfly feeds on, as well as nectar plants that they prefer (although they are not as fussy about those)

This awesome list of resources from Prairie Nursery lists host plants for a wide range of butterflies as well as additional resources to find out more.

What else is good for butterflies? In general, sunny spots that are protected from wind and protected from their predators, the birds–so that means no birdhouses in the butterfly garden. Birds love caterpillars, remember!

Make a “puddling” area for them to get water. This is even more shallow than the places where bees drink–if possible, it’s just a wet spot on the ground where they can absorb moisture and even salts from the earth. That can be tough to achieve so some folks fill a shallow saucer will sand, water and even some salt.

This site has some ideas and even an embedded video to give you a sense of how it’s all done.

Finally, what’s most important when watching butterflies is time: take the time to be still in your garden and watch them. One of my best moments last year was the 15 minutes I took to sit in the grass and watch the monarch larva on my milkweed. It wasn’t quite “forest bathing,” but it was certainly peaceful. I highly recommend it.

Herbs for Pollinators?

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I have posted about herbs for bees before, when I was talking about self-cleaning annuals. But I think this group of plants gets over-looked as a pollinator source and it shouldn’t.

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Not only are the blossoms some of the prettiest around (these are chives, from earlier in the season, and yes, they are edible, although you don’t want to put a whole chive blossom on your salad. Better to break it into pieces,) but their colors are the right colors usually for bees and butterflies–purples and blues and whites.

The photo at the top is oregano.

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This is cilantro, going to seed and forming coriander seeds.

And sage (mine got too winter-killed to bloom this year) blooms in a lovely blue.

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Finally, this is anise hyssop (agastache) which is an herb in the mint family. Most folks just grow it as an ornamental perennial but it can be used for tea if it has been grown organically.

So in addition to growing herbs for use, why not grow some for the pollinators too?