Sunday, June 8, 2014

My Lonely Milkweed

I’ve been planting milkweed for years now. I have bought it and I have rescued it. Friends have even given me some. All of these plants have gone into my garden with the hope that a monarch butterfly would find them and lay eggs on them.  It hasn’t happened. The only time that I got monarch eggs is when they came in on a plant that I bought!

Butterfly milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa)

I have pondered why my milkweed fails to attract a monarch butterfly. 

  • Perhaps they don’t fly past my yard (although one fall they were in a field of goldenrod not 2 miles from my house). To be fair that was fall, not spring, perhaps they have a different route.
  • Perhaps I don’t have enough blooming flowers in my yard to steer them into my vicinity during spring migration. You know - the “Eat Here!” flashing-neon-sign-approach.
  • Perhaps only a small portion of them even migrate through Georgia and the chance of finding my yard is like a needle in a haystack. Sigh

I know they do migrate through Georgia - I have a few scattered reports of caterpillars from friends and acquaintances.  I thought perhaps if I wrote about them, luck might swing my way.

My butterfly milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa) is looking especially yummy right now with handsome foliage and bright orange flowers (see picture above taken this past week). I’ve also got purple milkweed (Asclepias purpurascens) grown and sold by GNPS volunteers and poke milkweed (Asclepias exaltata) that my friend Sheri grew from seed.

If they don’t come, I’ll keep wondering but I’ll also keep growing milkweed. I’ll increase the number of blooms I have available for nectar in spring to lure them in.  And in the fall, when I don’t think they lay eggs on Georgia milkweed but when they definitely have a need for nectar, I’ll keep boosting the amount of blooming flowers available to them. Flying back to Mexico is hard work and providing nectar is the least I can do.

The two most popular flowers that I’ve seen in the wild for monarchs looking for fall nectar are goldenrod (Solidago) and blazing star (Liatris). Both of those provide abundant nectar at just the right time for migrating monarchs – approximately the end of September. And by popular, I mean that I saw monarchs in a big field of flowers and those were the plants they chose.

Monarch 9/29/2012 Canton GA field

In the meantime, I’ll hope that my milkweed helps to sustain other insects that depend on it like pollinators in search of nectar and the other members of the milkweed community.



  1. Now that's strange! I live right by Little 5 Points and while the backyard is native-only, the front is anything but. 3 years ago I put in half a dozen milkweeds in the front near the porch and they were completely covered in monarch crawlers. Then cocoons everywhere to the point that my wife said to never plant them there again. So I put t've been putting them in the back and -- no monarchs! Are they just picky or did I have the perfect year the first time?

  2. We have a fairly large yard with 8 or 9 different kinds of milkweeds, but I see monarch caterpillars on them only rarely. Usually when I find them it is late in the summer. This spring I noticed that the monarchs migrating north seemed to pass through before most of our milkweed had emerged. Perhaps their northward migration is getting out of sync with milkweed emergence?

  3. Years (~20) ago we planted a few A. tuberosa in our yard. They self-sowed and spread until we has 2 dozen+ plants. The monarch abundance has been very erratic. Some years no caterpillars appear, but in others some plants are defoliated completely. Usually we find only a few on the A. tuberosa. Once I found a monarch egg in late September, when they are not supposed to be reproducing. They are supposed to enter reproductive diapause in later summer/fall in order to have enough stored energy for migration. Some people think that the SE monarchs may not migrate to Mexico where most of the northern & mid-western monarchs go, but no one seems to really know what our GA monarchs do.
    I've had more luck with A. currasavica. We always get some monarck larvae on them. It has more of the cardenolides than tuberosa and monarch prefer to oviposit on varieties that have more of the toxic substances that the caterpillars sequester. I know that currasivica might not qualify as a native species, but sometimes you have to sacrifice ideology for the sake of other benefits. The monarchs will love you. In any case, I'd plant more milkweed, maybe you'll get lucky.

  4. To jolomo, on your one-and-done summer of '11 monarch success in the Little 5: I'm not a conservation biologist, but I do follow these situations closely. If I'm not mistaken the winter following that summer, the overwintering monarchs at the Mexico locations suffered nothing short of a population crash. If not that winter, it would have been the winter of 2012-13. Since then the southeastern US migrants, in my informal observation, have been way down from former years. I'm wondering if you may have squeezed in those Asclepias in your garden just under the wire for that sudden crash the following winter.

    But I'm like Ellen, in this week's piece: I'd still be planting Asclepias as much as your budget can afford; and perhaps even planting them in your front yard, as much as your marriage can afford.