We see them every day - lovely flowers along our sidewalks or blossoming in the fields of our local neighborhoods. Some we know, others we may have to familiarize ourselves with. Often people assume more unsightly plants are weeds or even invasive plant species. It's important for us all to be environmentally conscious for the betterment of our ecosystem, and this is where a little knowledge goes a long way, possibly affecting far more than you may first believe. For example, did you know that Milkweed is often considered an invasive weed yet can produce some of the most vibrant flowers of any wild plant? Its reputation was influenced mainly by its ability to rapidly reproduce, which has hurt agricultural lands where its unchecked growth can be detrimental to crop production. However, if maintained, this wild, flowering plant adds beautiful color to the area and is the essential food for a widely known endangered species: the Monarch Butterfly. In fact, it plays one of the most crucial functions in the Monarch's survival, as Milkweed is the only place for the butterfly to successfully lay its eggs.
This natural relationship spans generations, entire regions, and even several species! Monarchs venture on a grand migration every year that takes three whole life cycles of three generations of butterflies to achieve. Starting in Mexico, they travel north, pollinating and feeding along the way until they reach the southern United States. From there, the Monarchs will locate native Milkweed plants to lay their eggs, hopefully avoiding any areas where hostile herbicides or pesticides have been used. The first generation of Monarchs will pass, and their eggs will hatch, metamorphosize, and continue the journey deeper into the US. From there, second generations of Monarchs will repeat this process, relying exclusively on Milkweed plants to lay their eggs in the spring! Finally, when this last generation hatches and evolves into butterflies, the journey south will begin again, as will the same dependence on Milkweed plants for food and habitat along the way. When they reach Mexico in the winter months, the process begins anew. At the center of it all, the many Milkweed species are there to sustain this beautiful cycle that keeps one of our most beautiful pollinators alive.
Unfortunately, Milkweed has become more and more scarce, causing troubles for these migrating butterflies. These plants are not often planted in gardens, and where they do exist, they can be covered in pesticides that will kill off whole generations of Monarchs. This struggle has contributed to the scarcity of these brightly-colored pollinators.
What can we do to help Monarchs and move them off the endangered list? Quite a lot, actually! By simply planting or sustaining Milkweed growth, you're playing a vital part in the multiple generations of Monarchs' survival as well as healthy pollination and ecological preservation across the US and areas of Northern Mexico. Milkweed is a hardy and resilient plant, making this task relatively simple for any aspiring gardener, and can also thrive in several areas along the path of Monarch migration. These plants are common in zones 9-11 of the USDA Plant Hardiness scale. Here are a few that you can try yourself, all with beautiful colors and character of their own:
SILKY GOLD (SCLEPIAS CURASSAVICA "SILKY GOLD" ): This perennial can grow up to three feet tall in the right conditions, drawing in numerous pollinators during spring and summer. Bees, hummingbirds, and of course, Monarchs love its nectar, and you'll love its golden color, lending vibrance and life to your garden. It thrives in both moist or dry soils and loves lots of sunlight in zones 9-11! You'll find this one primarily in regions further to the south and along coastal areas where things tend to be drier, making it unique among Milkweed varieties and lending itself to a more desert-like vibe. Coneflower, Tickseed, and Butterfly Bush also make great companions for this one, and all fit nicely in a native flower garden. What's more, they're resistant to pests and even larger mammals, so you'll have a secure group of them wherever you plant! pollinators
RED BUTTERFLY (ASCLEPIAS CURASSAVICA "RED BUTTERFLY"): Normally an annual, when found in zones 9-11, this one thrives as a perennial, capable of growing three feet tall in the right conditions! Another low-maintenance option, it thrives in many different soil conditions, producing vivid red blooms in spring and summer that attract Monarchs, but also bees and hummingbirds. This Milkweed thrives best in hotter, dryer environments most commonly found along the coast and further to the south. Given its preferred regions, you'll also hear this one being called Mexican Butterfly Weed, however, its origin is actually South America! Just be sure you're in an environment conducive to Monarch migration patterns before you plant, as this species can be detrimental to their movements if grown outside of its more tropical environments. If you have a native milkweed species in your area, pick that variety. However, with a bit of homework and the right environment, this one makes a great companion to Trumpet Vine, Bee Balm, and Salvia!
SILKY SCARLET (ASCLEPIAS CURASSAVICA "SILKY SCARLETT "): A perennial of zones 9-11, this one can also grow up to three feet tall and plays an equally important role in a Monarch's life and migration - A home, a safe place to lay eggs, and of course, a vital food source. This variety also produces shaped seed pods that make great props for floral arrangements! What's more, you can easily sow these seeds to make sure you have more red, flowering Milkweed the next season if you so choose! Easy to grow and capable of thriving in a number of soil conditions, this is another practical, low-maintenance option. It also goes by the name Tropical Milkweed given its native environments and is both resistant to rabbits and deer, adding to its hardy character. Silky Scarlet Milkweed also produces a lovely, fragrant aroma when its flowers are in bloom. Once again, be sure to plant in a way that supports Monarch Migrations, deferring to any native species you may already have in your area.
These are just a few of the varieties available here at Lively Root, and if you're in a region further north or outside of Zone 9-11, no worries! There are many native variants of Milkweed across the United States that would make lovely additions to your garden as well as welcome homes and food sources for migrating Monarchs. Common Milkweed spans several states, producing lush purple clusters of flowers when in bloom, and survives in a number of climates. Swamp Milkweed is an excellent alternative if you find yourself in wetter weather, and its clusters of pink flowers are sure to bring warmth to your home and garden! Antelope Horns, Showy Milkweed, and White Milkweed are also a few others scattered across the US. With just a little homework, you can find the variant that works best for your garden as well as Monarchs!
As always, be sure to check your local conditions first before planting. Not just for the sake of your plants, but as mentioned previously, for the sake of Monarch migration patterns. Like any other animal, Monarchs will be influenced by what food and breeding areas are most readily available and alter their migration routes depending on such factors. While it might be nice to attract an abundance of them, remember that other ecosystems across the continent also rely on their presence and ability to travel vast distances through multiple generations. Keep things consistent with their environment to help their numbers surge and bring them out of the endangered list! All it takes is just a little help from you and Monarchs will continue to thrive!