An image of a orange, black and white spotted Monarch butterfly

UPDATE: Roger’s Gardens no longer sells or recommends tropical milkweed. The nation’s leading Monarch conservation organizations now recommend planting only native milkweed species. Please join us and only cultivate native milkweed species, and share this information with friends and fellow gardeners.

Recently, gardeners and the public in general are becoming aware of the plight of one of our most well-known butterflies, the Monarch.

Once a common sight throughout most of North America, Monarch numbers are on a serious decline and the iconic butterfly is even being considered for listing as an Endangered Species. Since the 1980’s, California’s monarch population has declined an estimated 97%.

Milkweed plants, in all their various forms, are the exclusive foodplant of Monarch butterflies, so gardeners can play an important role in monarch ecology, and hopefully their recovery. Almost always, more milkweed plants means more Monarch butterflies. But now, as difficult as it is to believe, we are learning that this may not necessarily be true.

In Southern California, gardeners have milkweed choices when outdoor plant shopping. For decades the most common milkweed species in our gardens has been a Central American species sometimes called Tropical Milkweed, or more correctly Asclepias currassivica. It is a magnet for monarchs and even a single plant in a garden will soon display a few colorful caterpillars dining on its leaves.

In Southern California another milkweed also grows well, and it has been here for thousands of years. It is our native milkweed, usually called Narrow-leaf Milkweed or more accurately Asclepias fascicularis. It grows in many of our local canyons, hillsides and mountain foothills; and fortunately, now occasionally in our gardens.

Butterfly

Caption: Tropical Milkweed (Asclepias currassivica) is a popular non-native species and a prolific bloomer.

There is growing evidence within the science community that non-native milkweeds may be causing changes in monarch migration habits and increasing the prevalence of a debilitating disease among the adult butterflies. Fortunately, our monarch butterflies in California and other western states are far less migratory than their Eastern brethren, so the issue of effecting their migration habits does not apply as much to our region. The monarchs in California are not those that winter in Mexico or that you read about when you were in school. Ours do not travel from the Northern parts of North America to Southern areas every winter and then back again the following spring. But they do move around regionally, just not like the big migrations of some areas.

Nonetheless, there still may be an issue. The invertebrate conservation group The Xerces Society recommends native milkweed species. Narrow-leaved milkweed, or Asclepias fascicularis, is a relatively showy plant reaching about three feet in height with pale pink to cream colored flowers. With a blooming period lasting from May through October, narrow-leaved milkweed provides plenty of nectar for adult monarchs, but more importantly, it provides the necessary leaves that Monarch butterflies depend upon, and not the harmful protozoa. As with all species of milkweed, pinching off the blooms once they are spent, a process called “deadheading,” can greatly prolong the blooming season. That way, the plant keeps putting out more flowers in an effort to fruit and reproduce.

Milkweed

Caption: Narrow-leaf Milkweed (Asclepias fascicularis) is a native species that grows on our local hillsides and is an excellent foodplant for Monarch butterflies.

Native Narrow-leaved Milkweed is perfectly suitable to most of our gardens, as long as you understand its growth cycle and know what to expect. Unlike Tropical Milkweed, which retains foliage all winter and even a few flowers, our native milkweed is completely winter dormant. About November the foliage will quickly yellow and begin to dry. Shortly after this, the entire plant is generally cut back to near the soil line to let it rest until the following spring, when it will burst out with a fresh season of growth. It disappears completely in the winter – and that is perfect for monarchs!

It is this winter ‘die-down’ that is exactly what tropical milkweed does not do – and that is the problem. A microscopic protozoan can persist and multiply on the winter foliage of tropical milkweeds. Then, when monarchs feed on these tropical milkweeds the protozoan transfers from the plant to the larvae and eventually to the adult butterfly, weakening and even killing the adults.

 

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Catepiller
Pod

Caption: Monarch caterpillars and chrysalis are nearly as beautiful as the adults.

Milkweed_Plant

Caption: Indian milkweed (Asclepias eriocarpa) is another Southern California native species, but is seldom grown in gardens.

Roger’s Gardens no longer sells or recommends tropical milkweed. We suggest all tropical milkweed be removed from your garden, but we know that some gardeners will resist this request, especially when they see larvae abundantly feeding on it.

Although we suggest removing tropical milkweeds completely, if you do continue to grow it in your garden it is important to manage them in a manner that protects the Monarch butterflies. Each winter, beginning about Christmas, cut the entire plant to about four – six inches from the ground, below all leaves. This will not harm the milkweed at all. In fact, doing so refreshes the plant and makes it look even better the following year. About a month later, cut it down again. Some conscientious butterfly gardeners even cut it a third time a few weeks later, just to be safe.

This winter cut-back removes all the milkweed foliage and therefore most of the overwintering protozoan, preventing it from establishing on the plant and infecting the butterflies.

Whether native or tropical, make your milkweed choice carefully and manage your plants intelligently. Your efforts will help bring back the Monarch’s and restore their populations to healthy levels.

Monarch_Milkweed
Monarch_Milkweed2

Caption: A close relative of the Monarch is the Queen Butterfly, which also feeds on Milkweeds. Here it is nectaring on Narrow-leaf Milkweed in Irvine.

For more information about western Monarchs, milkweeds and butterfly health see: https://xerces.org/save-western-monarchs/

Learn more about Monarch conservation and how you can help:

Roger’s Garden Livestream, filmed June 2020
RG Instagram Feed

The Xerces Society
Western Monarch Conservation

CA Dept of Fish and Wildlife
Monarch Butterfly Article

US Dept of Fish and Wildlife
Monarch Butterfly Article

We encourage you to assist Monarch biologists by plotting your Monarch and milkweed observations on the Western Monarch Milkweed Mapper. This project is part of a collaborative effort to map and better understand monarch butterflies and their host plants across the Western U.S.
https://www.monarchmilkweedmapper.org/

Recent Monarch News:

August 2020:

Western Monarch Annual Thanksgiving Count

Each year, during November for the past two or three decades hundreds of volunteers head out to approximately 330 California coastal overwintering locations all across the state to count the numbers of adult Monarch butterflies. This comprehensive effort provides valuable data about the health of the species and its population change over time.

The 2019 count included surveys at 13 Orange County monarch wintering locations. The results were alarming – a total count of just three Monarch butterflies in Orange County! This contrasts with a count of 13,650 butterflies at just eight locations surveyed in 1997.

In 2020 Orange County’s Monarch overwintering sites will be surveyed between November 14 and December 6 and volunteers from Roger’s Gardens will be assisting. Stay tuned.

Statewide Results from the 2019 Survey:

Chart