Monarchs on the Wing: From Here to New Mexico

MLT Mexican Sunflower

I am going to begin this essay with a personal story. Yesterday was a gorgeous blue and gold day and I was walking through my milkweed strewn field when suddenly I discovered a baby monarch caterpillar chewing up a leaf… I was just starting new research for this essay and so I was very excited. This year I had already planned to raise another monarch as I have done for most of my life – and here he was! I carefully removed the milkweed stalk, added others and brought them up the hill to place in a bucket. I planned to raise this one outdoors. Then I came in to work on my research… needless to say I was simply horrified to learn that scientists are now saying that it may put the monarch at risk to hand raise them. I checked other sources with the same result. I went out to see my little friend thinking I had best return him to the field as fast as I could and he was GONE. Oh no, I was distraught. I came back in with a heavy heart that I couldn’t shake all day. Why do I have to keep learning again and again that nature takes care of her own WITHOUT MY HELP, even though I rarely I interfere? Last night returning from a walk with my dogs I casually checked a nearby milkweed patch – and lo – there he was munching on a leaf warming in the sun! I quickly took a picture and then moved closer to inspect my little friend and he simply dropped off the leaf and disappeared out of sight! Enough of this predator; the message couldn’t have been more clear. As I came down the driveway I realized the little fellow had made a long arduous journey up the hill to rooted milkweed, no doubt guided by scent. He must have been exhausted. But what choice did he have? His field was a quarter of a mile away. I was relieved but still worried. Monarch caterpillars like full sun and this batch didn’t have it. This morning I couldn’t find him – the sun doesn’t hit this particular milkweed patch until after 10 AM. When the sun rose over the trees I went back to check and he had moved to another plant that was getting full sun.  I apologized profusely telling him that I was so sorry to have behaved so stupidly but that I just didn’t know…  then I left him unable to decide whether moving him back to the field was what I should do, or perhaps it would be better to let him be? The end of this story remains unfinished…But you can be sure I will NEVER move a monarch caterpillar again. This little fellow taught me a powerful, painful lesson that I needed to learn…


baby inch long caterpillar

Monarch caterpillars feed exclusively on the leaves of milkweed as they get ready to pupate, the only host plant for this iconic butterfly species. As such, milkweed is critical for survival. Without it, they cannot complete their life cycle. Simple.

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 (it used to grow wild throughout this country from coast to coast.).

The good news is that planting milkweed is one of the easiest ways that each of us can make a difference. 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.


Planting local milkweed species is always best. You can collect your own seed, or purchase seed or plants to add to your garden, or to any landscape. Three species have particularly wide ranges and are good choices in most regions: common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca), swamp milkweed (A. incarnata), and butterfly weed (A. tuberosa). The latter two are highly ornamental and widely available via the nursery trade.

Note: Tropical milkweed, (Asclepias curassavica), available at many retail nurseries is not native to the U.S. However it has naturalized in the Southeastern U.S. Science is discovering that its long bloom time may have some detrimental effects on monarch migration and possibly be a source to spread disease within monarch populations. If you do have tropical milkweed in your garden in milder climates, it is recommended to cut the plant back in the winter months to encourage monarchs to move on to their natural overwintering sites and to prevent disease.

 What follows are some salient suggestions for folks who want to improve the monarchs’ chances of survival.  

1. Plant Lots of Milkweed

It bares repetition. Milkweed is the only plant monarch caterpillars eat. These caterpillars hatch from eggs laid on the plant before consuming its leaves. 

However, not just any kind of milkweed will do. The key is this: You must plant milkweed native to your area.

monarch on my butterfly weed.

The reason? Planting non-native types of milkweed risks monarch butterfly health. In many areas, non-native, tropical milkweed survives through the winter, allowing ophryocystis elektroscirrha, a parasite that can be found on monarchs and milkweed, to build up to dangerous levels. By sticking with native milkweed, the parasite dies with the plant in the winter, ensuring that new milkweed grows with less risk from the parasite when monarch butterflies return in the spring.

You can purchase milkweed seeds but please ask about the origin of both seeds and plants. Some have already been treated with pesticides. 

Another option, if you have milkweed in your area is to harvest the plant yourself. To harvest seeds at the right time, make sure their pods pop open under light pressure or pick and dry unripe pods in a shaded attic room like I do.

The best time to plant milkweed seeds is in the fall so the cold temperatures and moisture that come with winter stimulate germination. In Abiquiu, the only place I ever had to plant milkweed to have some, I sowed the seeds in early November.

Milkweed should probably be planted in the sunniest parts of your yard or garden. In places like NM protection from afternoon frying is probably a necessity. If you have a choice of soil, most milkweed species thrive in light, well-drained soils with seeds planted a quarter-inch deep. Since milkweed is a perennial you can harvest the seeds from your new plants and grow them in other parts of your yard or garden the following year.

For places like Abiquiu NM the only milkweed I found was the common Asclepias syrica, and then I only discovered a plant or two growing along the ditches shaded from the ferocity of the afternoon sun. However, when I harvested the seeds I planted them by a partially shaded drainage pipe near the house and they not only survived but multiplied. Note, they required daily watering.

 Please Also Note: Tropical milkweed also called Mexican milkweed (Asclepias curassavica) is available at many retail nurseries but is not native to the U.S. However, it has naturalized in the Southeastern U.S. Science is discovering that its long bloom time may have some detrimental effects on monarch migration and possibly be a source to spread disease within monarch populations as already mentioned. If you do have tropical milkweed in your garden (It’s gorgeous), it is recommended that you cut the plant back in the winter months to encourage monarchs to move on to their natural overwintering sites and to prevent disease.

Once monarch caterpillars transform into bittersweet bright orange butterflies, they need the right food to survive and prepare them for their long winter migration to Mexico or the California coast. 

Once again, be sure to include flowers that are native to your region, since these are plants monarchs have relied on and are suited to the local environment.

In Maine it is easy and such a pleasure to visit the local MLT pollinator garden to look for monarch friendly plants. In other areas it’s important to do your homework to find out what plants do best your particular area. My common milkweed grows wild and I have never interfered with this process. I have a field overflowing with it and it’s on my road just about everywhere (the latter I seeded in because I love walking past it – the scent is intoxicating!). I grow bright orange butterfly weed around the house. Thanks to the MLT pollinator garden I have fallen in love with A. incarnata and may try some here. Swamp milkweed is also next on my list to be planted at the edges of my favorite forest. Adult monarch favorites are Mexican Sunflowers, the color is beyond belief and monarchs love it. Liatrus is another good choice for monarchs, as is verbena, cosmos, or butterfly bush. There are so many possibilities. Start researching now!

2 Don’t Use Pesticides

This is such a no brainer that I feel stupid writing the words but the shelves of our stores are full of these plant hating products – Roundup is just one of a mass of deadly killers .

Neonicotinids also known as neonics, are particularly destructive. When applied, neonics spread throughout all parts of a plant, becoming dangerous for monarchs and every other living being including humans. With monarchs the outcome is always fatal. 

Canada and the European Union banned the use of neonics but the US still lives in the capitalistic, take the easiest way out, dark age mentality. These toxins continue to be used without restrictions in this country. If you must purchase yard and gardening products, avoid those with neonicotinoid ingredients including clothianidin, imidacloprid, thiamethoxam and dinotefuran, and neonic-like ingredients, such as flupyradifurone and sulfoxaflor. 

3. Avoid Rearing Monarchs

Raising butterflies is an enticing activity for families and educators, and I have done it most of my life but now I have learned the hard way that breeding monarchs in captivity is hurting the survival of the species. Captive-bred monarchs are less likely to survive, and scientists warn those that do survive long enough to mate will pass down their weaker traits to wild butterflies, hurting the chances of survival for the whole population. Instead of raising monarch caterpillars in your house or yard, you can watch wild monarch caterpillars grow from eggs to butterflies by monitoring the milkweed as I plan to do in the future – beginning now!

Remember that 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 but not the only one. This is a complex issue. We need more than milkweed to save the monarchs and the rest of the insect population – we have to restore natural habitat – lots of it. We are a no context culture so we have a tendency to choose a species and then try to save it (whales, butterflies, trout, birds – could go on and on here) without dealing with root causes, the context: logging machines, cattle run amok, general loss of habitat, drought, fires, climate change etc. I am assuming that most folks have developed some awareness around the crisis we are facing on a global level.

On the thorny subject of monarch tagging: I am a member of our local land trust (MLT) and am a volunteer for this organization. I personally am against monarch tagging and have expressed my views on this issue to those in power.

 I believe that we tag butterflies primarily for people not for monarchs. Studies show that tagging creates stress for the insect, possibly lessening its ability to journey to its winter destination safely. More studies are being conducted as I write. As a lifetime naturalist/ethologist (Ph.D), it is still my common sense that tells me that creating stress for the butterfly may interfere with its survival for the short or long term. Of course, tagging helps humans monitor the monarch population so that the species has FINALLY become officially endangered. So, like everything else there are always two sides to the story. I leave the reader with a question each individual must answer for herself/himself. Do you think tagging monarchs helps the butterfly or not?

There’s new research that indicates that butterfly wing dust protects them from being eaten. The dust or powder on every butterfly wing is made up of tiny scales that may form patterns that help the butterflies blend into their background, and thus escape being eaten by birds or other animals.

While touching a butterfly’s wings may not kill it immediately, it could potentially speed up the fading of the colors on the butterfly’s wings, wiping out patterns that are used to protect the butterfly from predators.  Thus touching the butterfly’s wings could potentially result in a shorter life expectancy.

I think it may be prudent to let scientists do further studies before we champion tagging any further, but of course, this is simply my opinion.                        

 I was fascinated to learn that the Desert Southwest harbors at least 41 of the 76 milkweed (Asclepias) species known to exist in the lower 48 states. The species richness of
milkweeds in this region is influenced by the
tremendous diversity and range of vegetation types,
soils, topography, climate, and the exposure of
unusual rock types that occur over more than a 9,000
foot elevation range. The nectar of milkweed flowers
is attractive to dozens of insects including bees,
wasps, butterflies, moths, and hummingbirds. The
bees that milkweed flowers attract to agricultural
landscapes are important for pollinating a wide
variety of vegetable forage and fruit crops.

Also of interest is that traditional ecological and utilitarian knowledge about milkweeds in the Desert Southwest has
persisted due to the many living traditions among the region’s long-standing Native American cultures. Of the milkweed species found native, naturalized, or cultivated in the desert southwest region, there are recorded traditional uses of spider milkweed (Asclepias asperula); short-crown milkweed (A. brachystephana); tropic milkweed (A. curasaavica); Hall’s milkweed (A. halli); giant sand milkweed (A. erosa);
mahogany milkweed (A. hypoleuca); swamp milkweed (A. incarnata); corn kernel milkweed (A. latifolia); Zizotes milkweed (A. oenotheroides); showy milkweed (A. speciosa); horsetail milkweed (A. subverticillata); butterfly weed (A. tuberosa); and whorled milkweed. Wow!

The Hopi boiled the flowers or floral buds of showy milkweed before mixing them with corn or wheat flour to then be added to meat dishes. In addition, many people—especially children—have used the white latex of milkweed buds, stems, and fruits as a chewing gum, hardening the latex
over a fire or by other means. Such use has been common among the Diné (Navajo), various Piman cultures (Akimel, Tohono O’odham, and the Zuni). There are
some accounts from Puebloan and Hispanic peoples using milkweed pods in stews to tenderize the meat, but the culinary
techniques and chemistry of this traditional practice are not well understood.

Many milkweed species in the Southwest borderlands were used medicinally—as an emetic, a treatment for warts, burns, and scalds, a respiratory aid (using powdered leaves and stems), a treatment for throat and nose congestion associated with colds and pleurisy, and when the entire plant was infused it was used to treat infants afflicted with diarrhea. In addition, an infusion or tea made from various milkweed species served as a gynecological aid for mothers after childbirth, a common practice for the Hopi and nearly all other tribes situated on the Colorado Plateau. 

In the northern reaches of the Desert Southwest region, various bands of the Southern Paiute also used the root as an analgesic to wash heads to relieve headaches. 
The Hopi occasionally used the woody stems of milkweeds as a planting stick for dribbling seeds into their sand dune fields of native crops. The Diné and Zuni also used the floss or cottony fiber of barely-ripened seedpods to spin into string. The string was then used to fasten feathers to prayer sticks (pahos), or it was mixed with cotton to weave dance kilts or women’s belts. Rabbit and fish nets in the prehistoric Desert Southwest may have been comprised of both Asclepias and Apocynum species. Several milkweed species have also been used by Diné medicine men and Hispanic Curanderos to treat livestock ailments among cattle, goats, and sheep.

However, because of varying toxicity, please do not experiment with the use of Asclepias without foreknowledge!

In conclusion, as we can see from the above Indigenous practices milkweed is yet another plant with a multitude of uses aside from being the primary host for monarchs.

As our culture continues to be destroyed by western cultural practices that are not sustainable, perhaps we need to become ‘more Indigenous’, as well known author and scientist Robin Wall Kimmerer suggests (BraidingSweetgrass). If we were to take that route the monarchs might again find habitat, food, they need, and what’s left of land and trees might once again be valued as a complex interrelated Living Being, more than able to sustain us all. At the very least, it’s food for thought. 

(as usual now wordpress screws up my writing)

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