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The affliction begins very simply with a flowering plant in the garden. A butterfly is observed sipping nectar from a flower and an innocent and unsuspecting homeowner can contract the bug (excuse the pun) of butterfly gardening. These seemingly delicate, colorful and fanciful creatures have the ability to capture your interest and before you know it you have a case of full blown butterfly madness. Beautiful yes but delicate no so much so. Every fall millions of Monarch butterflies embark on what can be described as nothing less than a miracle journey. Migrating from as far north as Canada to over-wintering grounds in California and Mexico, Monarchs can travel up to 50 miles per day averaging 12 miles per hour. Living for a period of up to 8 months, Monarchs have been seen flying nearly a mile high as they move southwest towards their wintering grounds only to return the next spring. Here in Ohio the fall migration reaches its peak in mid-September when you can find concentrations of Monarchs in the mornings and evenings as they leave their resting spots.
The age old migration routes of the Monarchs are threatened by development and habitat loss but you can help by providing resources necessary for Monarchs to produce ongoing generations. By providing host plants for larvae to feed upon and nectar sources to provide needed energy for adults you can help connect the dots along the migration routes that are vital for Monarchs and all butterfly species.
Monarchs rely heavily on milkweeds as host plant to lay their eggs and feed their larvae. Historically, 90% of butterfly habitat occurs on farm lands which are disappearing and/or may have been tainted with chemicals that have negatively influenced butterfly populations dramatically since the 1990’s. With shrinking pastures, croplands and open fields, creating butterfly habitat within suburban areas has never been more important. Creating Monarch habitat is something we all need to consider if we find any value in the phenomenon that is the Monarch migration.
The host plants necessary for larvae development are the many different types of milkweed. (Asclepias) The most common Asclepias tuberosa is a very hardy perennial that loves hot and dry conditions and has bright orange flowers in summer. Asclepias curassavica or silky milkweed has red flowers all summer but is not hardy and used as an annual flower here. Asclepias incarnate or swamp milkweed is another native with pink flowers that prefers moist soil conditions. Asclepias verticillata is another drought tolerant milkweed with finely textured foliage and beautiful white flowers.
Feeding the larvae is important but what flowers do adult butterflies like best? Cleome, Cosmos, Ageratum, Marigolds, Lantana, Pentas, Salvia and Verbena are a few favorite annual flowers for butterflies. Consider these for your garden beds, hanging baskets and container plantings. Perennial flowers most attractive to butterflies include Monarda, Liatris, Joe Pye Weed, Butterfly Bush, Caryopteris, Goldenrod, Ironweed, Asters, Phlox, Sedum, Vitex and Violets.
Just like any other garden, a butterfly garden needs proper planning and maintenance for success. Begin by preparing your planting site by mixing organic matter in the planting soil. Do not over-plant and keep spreading plants thinned as they grow to avoid over-crowding. While most plants listed are tough native plants do provide additional irrigation as necessary and clean bed areas annually. Remove invasive species that may attempt to establish themselves. Minimize/eliminate the use of insecticides and utilize natural fertilizers and/or compost to feed your plants.
Sometimes tackling big problems can seem overwhelming to the point of hopeless. Creating butterfly habitat is something we can all be a part of. It may be the establishment of a prairie, a small perennial garden it may be as simple as a hanging basket with the right kind of flowers. No contribution is too insignificant and together we can make a difference… on butterfly at a time.
Now go outside and have fun in the dirt!