Working Together to Save the Monarch Butterfly

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Monarchs can be attracted to backyard gardens with some thoughtful plantings. Andy Reago & Chrissy McClarren [CC by 2.0]/Flickr

A botanical garden in the most unlikely of places is working to solve the plight of the monarch butterfly. And you can help.

The Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix in Arizona's Sonoran Desert is on a mission to show home gardeners — no matter where they live — how they can create way stations to help save this iconic American butterfly. Monarch butterflies, perhaps the most recognizable butterflies in the U.S. because of their distinctive orange and black markings, have declined so drastically that in August the Center for Biological Diversity and Center for Food Safety filed a request asking that monarchs and their remaining habitat be protected under the Endangered Species Act. This week, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said it would investigate the need for protected status.

Garden staffers are encouraging home gardeners to plant monarch-friendly plants, especially the milkweeds, which the caterpillars need to survive, in their yards to help sustain the butterflies on their long and arduous annual migration, which can cover thousands of miles. The goal is to create enough residential way stations to form the type of habitat connectivity that is being lost as urban sprawl overtakes natural areas.

There are two populations of monarchs in North America: western and eastern. The eastern population migrates in late summer and fall from as far north as southern Canada to winter grounds in Mexico, returning to the eastern United States and Canada in the spring. The western monarch stays west of the Rocky Mountains, over-wintering mostly in California.

The Desert Botanical Garden’s interest in monarchs is not as odd as it may first seem. Arizona is also home to several dozen species of Asclepias (milkweed), the only plants on which female monarch butterflies will lay their eggs and the caterpillars feed. To help the western monarchs on their journey, the Desert Botanical Garden has planted more than 200 milkweeds among its collection of rare cacti, for which it is best known.

Getting gardeners involved

It has also developed creative ways to promote interest in monarchs among local gardeners. One way the garden is creating this awareness is in a butterfly demonstration garden. The garden is planted with milkweeds and two other types of plants critical to the monarchs’ survival — nectar and shelter plants that provide food and protection for adult butterflies.

Another measure the staff has taken is to hold “Monarch and Milkweed Saturdays,” during which visitors can learn about monarch conservation and actions they can take to help save the monarchs. They can also participate in a monarch tagging demonstration and take a butterfly walk with a naturalist.

“Garden staffers created the demonstration garden to show visitors how they can add monarch friendly plants to their home gardens,” said Kim Pegram, the Garden’s exhibit specialist for butterflies. The value of the demonstration garden goes far beyond the Phoenix area, however. That’s because the types of plants used in the garden — milkweed as a host plant, nectar plants for food and small trees for shelter — can be used in home gardens anywhere in the country.

While staffers encourage home gardeners to use native plants to create residential monarch way stations, “we don’t slap people on the wrist for using non-natives,” said Kimberlie McCue, the garden’s assistant director for Research, Conservation and the Collections Department. The Desert Botanical Garden, in fact, has planted a non-native tropical milkweed in its efforts to attract monarchs.

The more critical goal, McCue said, is to establish monarch habitats in home landscapes. “It’s important for homeowners to get involved, “McCue said, “because there are not enough natural areas left to sustain the monarchs.”

The thinking is that if enough people can create monarch way stations in their gardens, then residential yards will form the type of habitat connectivity that the butterflies have traditionally found in the continent's disappearing natural areas.

a Monarch caterpillar crawls on milkweed

The importance of milkweed

The most important plant in that connectivity is the milkweed. Fortunately, there is such a diversity of milkweeds that homeowners virtually anywhere in the country should be able to find a species local to their area. The diversity also means there is a milkweed to fit virtually any niche in a garden, McCue said.

For nectar plants, Joan Boriqua, horticulturalist for the garden’s Maxine and Jonathan Marshall Butterfly Pavilion, recommends daisy-like plants as nectar sources because their flower structure gives the butterflies a place to land. In addition to daisy-shaped flowers, she also recommends such easy-to-find nectar-producing plants as salvias, verbenas, sunflowers and lantanas.

Homeowners can also ask about the availability of regionally available nectar-producing plants at their local garden centers. Small-sized trees of almost any kind will provide shelter for the monarchs, Boriqua added.

If you want to create a monarch habitat in your home landscape, your garden may be eligible to become a certified monarch way station by Monarch Watch, an organization dedicated to creating, conserving and protecting monarch habitats. The group designated the Desert Botanical Garden as a certified monarch way station earlier this year.

And, if you really get into monarch conservation, you can even learn how to tag monarchs to help track their migratory patterns.