The Magnificent Monarch

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Have you noticed a beautiful, orange-winged butterfly fluttering around your garden? There is a good chance that it could be a Monarch butterfly. For the past month, Monarch butterflies have been extremely busy within the landscape. There are 4 stages of the Monarch life cycle: egg, caterpillar, chrysalis, and adult butterfly. This lifecycle process happens 4 times throughout the year producing 4 generations. The current and 4th generation adult Monarch will fly thousands of miles on its way to migration sites in south-central Mexico. These fragile butterflies will enter a hibernation-like state called diapause and live in the canopy of Oyamel fir tree

Monarch caterpillar on Asclepias tuberosa.

Monarch caterpillar on Asclepias tuberosa.

throughout the winter. Unlike the summer generations of adult Monarch that only live around 3 weeks, the winter adults will live for 7 months! Beginning in February they come out of hibernation to find a mate. They continue their migration north to find milkweed plants upon which to lay their eggs. As soon as the caterpillars emerge they begin consuming the leaves of the milkweed plant.

Once the caterpillars are around two inches long they find a suitable place to begin their transformation. They then spin a silken pad and hang vertically in a J-shape head down. Once upside down they begin to shed their old skin. From this point, it takes around 10-14 days for an adult Monarch butterfly to emerge.

The only source of food for these marvels of nature is the milkweed plant. Years ago milkweed was a fairly common plant in ditch banks, along roadsides and on the edges of farmland but has since declined dramatically due to the non-select nature in which some herbicides are applied.

There are many different species of milkweed, but most will do as Monarchs aren’t too terribly picky. It is suggested to plant several different species to give your Monarchs a wide pallet of food. Some species include the native Asclepias syriaca known as common milkweed. It produces light, creamy pink flowers throughout mid-summer into autumn. Asclepias incarnata known as swamp milkweed is truly a showstopper. It produces deep magenta colored flowers; a magnificent color for any garden! Both of these perennial species will reach 3-5 feet tall. Milkweeds will tend to wander around a bit in the garden from seed, so keep an eye on volunteer plants in areas where milkweed isn’t desired. It is vital to include these plants in your home landscape to sustain the habitat of the Monarch butterfly. Milkweed is also a great nectar source for other essential pollinators as well.

Monarch butterfly on Common milkweed

Monarch butterfly on Common milkweed