Indeed, eradication of milkweed both in agricultural areas as well as in urban and suburban landscapes is one of the primary reasons that monarchs are in trouble today.
The good news is that planting milkweed is one of the easiest ways that each of us can make a difference for monarchs. There are several dozen species of this wildflower native to North America, so no matter where you live, there is at least one milkweed species naturally found in your area.
Monarch caterpillars feed exclusively on the leaves of milkweed, the only host plant for this iconic butterfly species. As such, milkweed is critical for the survival of monarchs. Without it, they cannot complete their life cycle and their populations decline.
Planting local milkweed species is always best. You can collect your own seed or purchase seed or plants to add to your garden, or any landscape in your community. Three species have particularly wide ranges and are good choices in most regions: common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca), swamp milkweed (A. incarnata), and butterflyweed (A. tuberosa). The latter two are highly ornamental and widely available via the nursery trade.
I found an organization, Live Monarch Foundation, that also offers free seeds. If you mail a self-addressed, stamped envelope to Live Monarch – 2020 Seed Campaign, PO BOX 1339, Blairsville, GA 30514, the foundation will send back 15 butterfly garden seeds, including milkweed, for free. If you include a donation for the foundation along with your envelope, they’ll provide you with 50 seeds for every dollar you donate.
Typically, Live Monarch Foundation has several varieties of seeds, and they’ll give you seeds that are native to your region. They have a few different hardy varieties of this perennial, including Asclepias syriaca (common milkweed) and Asclepias speciosa (showy milkweed), which can both survive freezing winters after the growing season ends. The foundation also has Asclepias curassavica (tropical milkweed), which grows well in Southern states like Florida, Louisiana, and Texas.
Yesterday kicked off the first day of spring, which in my mind always signals the return of blooming flowers, chirping birds, and butterflies fluttering everywhere. Aside from helping pollinate wildflowers, I love seeing butterflies every year because they make gardens look so much more magical and full of life. Monarchs are one of my all-time favorites because of their huge, unmistakable black and orange wings. One of the most effective ways to attract more monarch butterflies in your garden is to plant milkweed, and organizations dedicated to their conservation will sometimes send the seeds to gardeners at no charge. Some butterfly and garden enthusiasts have even taken it upon themselves to make accessing the seeds easy for everyone.
Common Milkweed Varieties
If you get milkweed seeds for your garden, you can start them indoors right now. Growing the plants inside for a few months gives them extra time to mature before transplanting outside. Then, plant the sprouts outside after the last spring frost in your region. In the fall, simply scatter the seeds outdoors; they won’t germinate until they’ve been exposed to freezing temperatures and won’t sprout until next spring. If you're interested in purchasing your own seeds to start, you could also purchase a collection of 40 Prairie Milkweed Seeds, $2.50, at Walmart.
Including native plants in your garden is just one way to help the pollinator population rebound.
A man in Omaha, Bob Gittins, took on a huge role in trying to save the monarchs. According to the Omaha World-Herald, after having trouble finding milkweed plants in stores, Gittins started buying the seeds in bulk from the Save Our Monarchs Foundation in Minnesota. Now, he’s helping other gardeners by giving away the seeds for free. Last year, he sent out 1,500 seed packets.
Monarch butterflies lay their eggs on milkweed, and when they hatch, it's the only plant the caterpillars will eat. That's what makes it so crucial for helping the next generation hatch each season. And with the monarch population declining, it's more important now than ever before for us to do our part to help these pollinators rebound.