Flowers & Blooms

Attracting Monarch Butterflies with Milkweed

Many people choose to grow certain plants in their garden in order to make a perfect environment to attract butterflies. Usually, the monarch butterfly is the one most people want to see in their garden.

Generally speaking, monarch butterflies love plants of the Asclepiadaceae (milkweed) family. They are attracted to these plants and lay their eggs in them. Their caterpillars are chubby and zebra-striped. The caterpillars feast upon the milkweeds alkaloid sap, while the birds steer clear of it.

Many monarch butterfly populations make gardeners pepper their landscapes with milkweeds so the monarch butterflies can use them to lay their eggs. This is why it’s important to know how to choose the best milkweeds for this purpose and how to grow them.

Milkweed Varieties

There are many different types and varieties of milkweeds to grow. For example, South American blood flower (Asclepias curassavica) is leafy for the whole year. On the other hand, native milkweeds are dormant in winter. The South American blood flower is known for its little flowers in numerous colors, including orange-singed yellow and ember red.

However, some experts recommend the natives as the best choice. Exotic milkweeds might pose some problems for monarch butterflies, making them more vulnerable to parasites. Also, the non-native plant varieties tend to be weedy.

The most beautiful Californian natives are showy milkweed (Asclepias speciosa). This plant has carnation-scented blossoms that are two-tiered. Their pink, five-fingered coronas are backed by petals with a rosy mauve. The plant has velvety leaves that glow in soft light.

This is a very beautiful plant, but it seems that monarch butterflies prefer its homelier cousin, the narrow-leafed milkweed (Asclepias dascicularis).

Monarch Butterflies

Growing Milkweeds

To achieve the best results, you should scatter the milkweed among the low-growing native shrubs. It’s best to be placed behind native grasses or irises. This way, you will still be able to see the flowers but the “skeletonization” that happens because of the caterpillars will be hidden from your sight.

It’s also best to plant milkweeds on a sunny place, away from traffic and pets. This will make easy for butterflies to spot the milkweed from above. Once they see and smell the plant, they will land on it to test it.

The female butterfly will take her front legs, equipped with chemical receptors, and scratch the leaf. This way, she can taste it with her feet to confirm it’s really milkweed. This is all she needs to know. After this, she will be happy to lay her eggs on it.

Various milkweed varieties are not difficult to get at nurseries. South American blood flower and butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa) are particularly common and widely available. You might encounter a bit of a problem to find California species of milkweed. You may need to search at a native plant nursery.

It’s vital to start from seed so you can avoid systematic pesticides that certain growers use. You can encourage leafy growth by cutting milkweeds back after they bloom. Remember, adult monarch butterflies need nectar, so you should treat them with lots of flat, upward-facing flowers.

There is no guarantee that you will attract monarch butterflies, but there is a good chance for it. Also, milkweed flowers attract many different varieties of butterflies, so you won’t lack butterflies in your garden.

Photo credit: ali eminov via photopin cc