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Milkweed and Monarchs

For generations, people have told stories about watching dozens of Monarch butterflies in their backyards or watching the insect go through its metamorphosis in the classroom. People living in the monarch’s overwintering sites in Mexico tell stories that so many butterflies once covered the trees that the beating of their wings sounded like running water. With all these prolific stories of monarch abundance, it’s hard to imagine the Monarch butterfly going extinct; but if trends continue this may happen in the not-so-distant future.

On December 15, 2020, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced that listing the monarch “as endangered or threatened under the Endangered Species Act is warranted but precluded by higher priority listing actions.” This means that Monarch populations are so low that the species is now a “candidate under the endangered species act” and it is listing will annually get reviewed.

Monarchs face many challenges along their 2,000-mile, four generational annual migration; deforestation, climate change, and habitat loss are just a few. So, what can we do to help save the monarch in the upper Midwest? The biggest answer is to plant and save habitat for the monarch, this includes its host species: the milkweeds.

The life-cycle of the Monarch butterfly cannot be completed without milkweed. The butterfly uses this species to lay its eggs upon and in turn the hungry caterpillar's munch away at the alkaloid-filled milkweed. The alkaloids in milkweeds aren’t poisonous to the monarchs- but animals that choose to eat Monarchs may become sick from ingesting all the toxins. One monarch look-alike butterfly called the viceroy copies the monarch in hopes that it won’t get eaten by other predators. Viceroys are not actually toxic (they don’t eat milkweed) they are just using the evolutionary biological process called mimicry, to survive.

Male Monarch on Butterfly Milkweed

There are 18 native milkweed species in Iowa, with the most widely distributed one being the common milkweed. Common milkweed can be found growing in native prairies, roadside ditches, farm fields, and even in our own backyards. Common milkweed can grow in a variety of soils and conditions-often forming dense colonies of plants. Other Iowa milkweed species that are less vigorous and make for great landscaping include butterfly milkweed and swamp milkweed. It’s important to note that these milkweed species can be grown from seeds but to be most successful at establishing milkweeds people should incorporate bare-root or potted plants.

Butterfly milkweed makes for an excellent landscaping choice as it is drought resistant and has few pests. This plant also performs very well in poor soils and has beautiful bright orange flowers that bloom June through August. Swamp milkweed as its name implies prefers moist sites with full sun. This plant produces pink and purplish blooms that smell slightly like vanilla. Interestingly, the key to planting milkweeds and monarch production may be planting as many different native species as possible. A recent study done by Iowa State University found that female monarchs laid 2.5 times more eggs when there were multiple milkweed species vs. only one species. Planting and saving milkweeds aren’t the only ways to help the monarchs- putting in beautiful nectar plants is another simple way to help.

Bee on Coneflower

Some native summer nectar plants include purple coneflower, leadplant, ironweed, joe-pye weed, and purple prairie clover.

Bee on Purple Prairie Clover-notice the heart-shaped pollen basket!

Plants that will bloom late summer and into the fall are goldenrods, asters, and blazing stars. Now is a great time to look online to order prairie plugs to plant this fall. Native plants of Iowa and the upper midwest are always preferred as they are adapted to our climate and soil types, these plants typically also require less upkeep!

Here is a great link from Iowa State University to get you started on creating butterfly and pollinator habitats:

Stay tuned to our website and Facebook as we will be hosting Monarch tagging events later this summer/early fall.

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