Monarch butterflies have been in the news lately, but for all the wrong reasons. Loss of habitat has led to a precipitous drop in the monarch population. The brilliant orange-and-black monarchs are our most widely recognized butterfly, but they need our help.
It’s easy to make a welcoming spot for them – and for all butterflies – in your garden: Plant the flowers they love. When you plant flowers that provide for their needs, you’re essentially growing your own butterflies.
“We tell everybody we talk to that there are things they can do to help monarchs – and what’s good for monarchs is good for pretty much every pollinator,” says Katie-Lyn Bunney of the University of Minnesota’s Monarch Lab. “The first thing we recommend is to plant milkweeds.”
For monarchs, the most important function of milkweeds is as a host plant for the caterpillars: Milkweed is the only food monarch caterpillars eat. Many other pollinators also favor its nutritious nectar.
Milkweeds were once common roadside plants. They were plentiful in the margins of farm fields and in the wide-open spaces of rural areas. Development has claimed the habitat of milkweeds in many areas, and modern farming practices do not leave much room for anything but cash crops. Bit by bit, it has added up to a disaster for the monarch.
Home gardeners can take an important part in this environmental rescue project: Many milkweeds are also terrific garden plants. The orange-and-yellow blooms of butterfly milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa) are particularly striking, and it is easy to grow.
The “Bring Back the Monarch” campaign of Monarch Watch, another program dedicated to restoring butterfly habitat and reviving the monarch population, is working to restore 20 important milkweed species to their native ranges throughout the U.S. The campaign recently launched a “Milkweed Market” to help gardeners find appropriate milkweed species for their area. In the process, they’re promoting healthy habitats for all pollinators.
Milkweeds are crucial, but, Bunney says, “for anyone looking to plant a pollinator or butterfly garden, you want to make sure there is nectar throughout the gardening season. If you only have some flowers in June or July, then you’re not going to have butterflies all through the season.”
Plan ahead, and try to grow flowers to attract butterflies from the first spring bloom until the last flower succumbs to frost. Bunney recommends other native plants, too. Growing black-eyed Susans, coreopsis, coneflowers and asters is a great way to get started on a butterfly garden. Many summer annual flowers, even if they are not natives, also attract butterflies. Butterflies love zinnias as much as most gardeners do.
Good garden design benefits butterflies and other pollinators. Butterflies are attracted to plants growing in clusters, and garden designers often recommend the same technique: When you plant three or five plants of one species in a group, they have more visual impact.
“Bright blotches of color are good,” Bunney says.
Butterflies also need shelter. Tall shrubs, fences – anything to break the wind – will make life a little easier for butterflies. You could mix tall flowers, such as phlox or milkweeds, with low mounds of verbenas, for example, to create layers of nectar-rich flowers and at the same time provide some protection from wind. Planting densely also makes it easier to care for plants, and it helps shade out weeds.
You don’t have to have a big garden to capture butterflies’ attention. Alan Branhagen, director of horticulture at Powell Gardens, a botanic garden just outside Kansas City, worked with a wholesale nursery this year on a design for a small and easy butterfly garden, using just three plants: butterfly milkweed, tall verbena and parsley. You could plant these together in a flowerpot, in a flower bed by the front door or at a garden gate. Parsley and other plants in the parsley family are the preferred food for swallowtail butterflies.
Branhagen designed another, more elaborate butterfly garden with purple coneflowers, catmint, Joe-pye weed, blazing star and black-eyed Susans.
It only takes a few plants to make a difference, because your friends and neighbors will be inspired by your pretty butterfly garden, Bunney says. If you join one of the monarch-support groups and post an official-looking sign designating your garden as a way station for monarchs, “it gets people thinking about what they can do in their own garden,” she says. “They will see there is a purpose to this.”
Before you know it, the neighbors will be making room for colorful butterfly-garden plants, too. The whole neighborhood will look the better for it, and you will be giving local and migrating butterfly populations a big boost.