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Native Plants: Monarch waystations provide necessary habitat for butterflies

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Tanya Kucak/Special to the Town Crier
Monarchs seek out milkweed, above, to lay their eggs, because the caterpillars eat only milkweed leaves.

Did you see any monarch butterflies in your garden this year? If not – or if you want to see more – consider creating a monarch waystation. That’s a pollinator garden designed specifically to cater to the needs of monarchs.

Backyard pollinator gardens provide “critical habitat” for the precipitously declining numbers of monarch butterflies, according to Tom Landis, founding member of the Southern Oregon Monarch Advocates. Landis spoke recently at a California Native Plant Society meeting.

Monarchs are the large orange and black butterflies famous for migrating south for the winter. They can fly 500-2,000 miles – up to 40 miles a day – to reach overwintering sites. West of the Rocky Mountains, monarchs overwinter on the California coast south of Monterey. East of the Rockies, monarchs overwinter in Mexico.

Monarchs breed from March to September, creating four generations. Each generation is a complete life cycle, from egg to caterpillar to pupa to adult butterfly. The first three generations last 6-10 weeks each. The last generation of the year is called a “super generation” because it lasts 6-7 months, from September until March or April. The same monarchs that fly south in October and November come back north in March and April to lay eggs and start the annual cycle anew.

With climate change, the butterflies and plants monarchs depend on may be out of sync. If monarchs leave their overwintering sites earlier in the year, the milkweed plants they need to lay their eggs on may not have “grown enough to be usable,” Landis said. And if the butterflies start their southward migration later, the nectar they need to sustain themselves for the long journey, from late-blooming fall plants, may be harder to find.

Monarch waystations can fill in the gaps by providing four essential features: milkweeds, nectar, shelter and water.

Milkweeds

From March to September, monarchs seek out milkweed to lay their eggs, because the caterpillars eat only milkweed leaves.

“Cultivated milkweed is four times more attractive to monarchs for egg laying,” Landis said.

He speculated that the plants grown in gardens are less stressed and healthier than wild milkweeds.

Although California has several species of native milkweeds, the most common ones – narrow-leaf and showy milkweeds – die to the ground in winter and may not produce enough leaves to support caterpillars by March or April. Landis suggested experimenting with less-common species of native milkweeds that might produce more foliage earlier, such as heartleaf milkweed.

Nectar

Native plants that produce nectar are especially crucial early in the season, when the butterflies are depleted from their northward migration, and late in the season, when they need plentiful nectar to build up “fat reserves” for their long migration and overwintering.

“The flowers in home gardens produce more nectar than plants in the wild,” Landis said, because they are more likely to get watered and thus are less stressed.

If you are buying new plants, Landis advised looking for “neonic-free” plants as well as avoiding pesticide use in the garden. In “sublethal doses, neonicotinoids can cause disorientation” in bees or butterflies, he said.

Some natives that provide plentiful nectar during the breeding season, March to September, include:

• Early: willows, manzanitas, ceanothus, oaks

• Midseason: sages, sunflowers, gumplant, buckwheats, coyote mint, lupines

• Late-season: coyote brush, hummingbird fuchsia, goldenrod, asters

Shelter

Monarchs roost in trees at night and during inclement weather. A tree, hedgerow or cluster of woody shrubs can offer shelter. Monarchs also seek shade on especially hot days.

Water

Butterflies drink water and absorb minerals from mud puddles.

Tanya Kucak gardens organically. Email her at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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