Monarch Butterfly Milkweed Garden 101

We forget that we owe our existence to the presence of Trees. As far as forest cover goes, we have never been in such a vulnerable position as we are today. The only answer is to plant more Trees – to Plant Trees for Our Lives.

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A short tutorial about starting your very own Milkweed Monarch Butterfly Garden

OR

How to have a successful Monarch pollinator Milkweed Patch.

Milkweed with Monarch Buttefly (Danaus plexippus)
Milkweed with Monarch Buttefly (Danaus plexippus)

Milkweeds are herbaceous perennials which grow about 1 meter (three feet) tall. The plants will bloom with clustered flowers over the summer growing season. Nature Saskatchewan says that five species of milkweed grow in Saskatchewan.

  • Low milkweed, (early milkweed, dwarf milkweed or oval-leafed milkweed) Asclepias ovalifolia grow 20 to 50 cm high ( to 20 inches), in sandy soil are common in moist mixed grasslands and along the edges of Aspen parklands and will tolerate sun and partial shade. Dwarf Milkweed blooms between May and June with a white, creamy color flower head.
  • Showy milkweed, Asclepias Speciosa found in mixed grasslands, with pink and white fragrant flower globular umbels. These plants grow to about 90 cm (35 inches)in height and feature large leaves. The plant is rhizomatous meaning that the roots send out shoots from the nodes creating colonies of these plants.
  • Silky milkweed, (common milkweed, tropical milkweed, blood flower, cotton bush, garden silkweed, redhead or Golden Butterflyweed) Asclepias curassavica a provincially rare plant reaching up to .6 to 1 m (2 to 3 ft) in height. The flower is purple or red corollas with yellow or orange corona lobes. This is a unique flower which blooms throughout the season June to October. This Milkweed is grown as an annual, and can be brought inside and used as an indoor house plant with bright lighting over the colder winter months. This plant is native to South America, grows in mixed grasslands and must be started indoors.
  • Whorled milkweed, (eastern whorled milkweed, horsetail milkweed) Asclepias verticillata another provincially rare plant that grows in mixed grasslands producing small greenish white flowers on an umbrel on the end of the plant stems. The leaves are linear and not broad, the plant thrives in dry soil, or clay/stony soil. The plant is very rare in Saskatchewan and when located it is most commonly found on hillsides in its native setting.
  • Green milkweed, (Green antelopehorn) Asclepias viridis, Asclepias viridis Walter,Asclepias viridiflora reaches a height of 20 – 60 centimeters (8 – 24 inches), however has been listed at 120 cm (47 inches). The numerous small flowers are pale green or a greenish yellow (and sometimes purple) clustered in round umbels (globes) at the top of the stem around June and July. Leaves are unique, being very thick, wavy and waxy. These plants enjoy dry hillsides, and a sandy soil in mixed grassland areas.

Buy your seeds from a nursery or department store, but check if the seeds have been pre-treated with an insecticide. An insecticide, will kill the butterfly caterpillar, defeating the purpose of planting the Milkweed plants. However, just planting the seeds in the soil, will not necessarily guarantee a crop of milkweed plants. And, furthermore, if you want larger plants to pop into your city lot garden, which the butterflies can use this season, it may be best to start them indoors this winter. The best time to start is now between the middle of January, and the middle of February, as the seeds, should be vernalized – subjected to cold by placing them into the refrigerator for 3-6 weeks set onto a moist paper towel, and protected in a plastic bag or plastic container. Wet the paper towel with non-chlorinated water if at all possible. “Cold stratification” can also be done by placing peat or a peat/clay mix into a planting pot or growing tray, and moistening this substrate before planting your seeds under about 0.6 cm (1/4 inch) of soil. Then pop this planting pot into the refrigerator or in a dark place hovering at a temperature around 5°C (41 degrees Fahrenheit) for 3-6 weeks but no longer than about 3 months. This stratification process will ensure a higher germination rate for your seeds. To naturally stratify your seeds, plant them outdoors in the autumn.

Common or Golden Butterflyweed Asclepias curassavica
Common or Golden Butterflyweed Asclepias curassavica

Timing the cold incubation period, would result in removing them from the cold temperature 6 weeks before the last frost date. In Saskatchewan, gardeners look to the last week of May to be frost free on average. So this means that the 3 week to 3 month cold period should end by the middle of March to the middle of April, so your seeds should be prepared in the fridge about middle January to the middle of February.

After your seeds come out of the fridge, then they should be soaked in cool non-chlorinated water for about 6 hours ~ a process referred to as “shocking” seeds. Then plant the seeds under 0.3 to 0.6 cm (1/8 to 1/4 inches) of soil, which is light, and drains well. These plants send out long tap-roots, so use a deep pot to accomodate your plant. However just use a light scattering of soil over the seed, as the seed needs light and warmth to begin their germination. A warm sunny window providing a warm ambient temperature of about 21 Celsius (70 degrees Fahrenheit) will do nicely for an indoor green house setting, and remember to mist the soil to aid germination or cover the seed flats with a plastic cover to keep the soil from drying out. The seeds may not emerge for two to three weeks. Once your plants have emerged water the plants in the tray below the planting pot.

Take care to not get the soil too wet which would encourage mould and mildew “damping off” which will kill your seedlings. Thin out your seedlings will also help prevent damping off. Thinning the plants will also prevent weaker plants, and another hint is to set a small oscillating fan on your seed tray to encourage a stronger plant stem. Wait until there are four true leaves on the Milkweed plant seedlings, which will mean they are about 3 to 6 inches in height before moving the plants into your garden. When you transplant the Milkweed, look for a site in your city yard, which mimics their naturalized area in full sunlight. Give this some thought, as if there is no milkweed, there are no Monarchs. Most Asclepias species thrive in disturbed areas, which means along side a roadway, bike path, railway track, highway meridian, cultivated garden or beside park or vacant land. Hoe the land area when it is dry to make it smooth and lump free. Before inserting your new plants, wet the hole made in the ground which will receive the new seedlings, the moisture will help draw the tap root down into the soil with adequate moisture and help them get established. Another consideration in your choice of area is that a few of the 160 species of Milkweed plant contain a toxic substance, and it has been found that farm animals such as sheep, cattle, or horses may be affected if they eat a very large quantity of milkweed. So for your domestic use, do not buy the Whorled Milkweed, as it is the toxic variety. It is interesting to note that a Milkweed species in Africa is used as an herbal medicine, and in some countries as a food if boiled over and over again with a change of water. As with most poisonous plants, they are bitter, and animals such as your pets or livestock will avoid them if they free range. Farmers and ranchers have the worst experience if the Milkweed gets into the feed or if the livestock eat contaminated hay. It is wise to note that the broad leaf varieties have less toxicity than the narrow leaved (whorled) species. The city is an ideal location, as the Milkweed is not popular among farmers and ranchers as cows are not affected by the urban Milkweed garden. If collecting Milkweed stems to propagate the Milkweed by cutting, remember to wear gloves as it is the milky sap in the Milkweed stem which where the highest amounts of toxins.

Fencing off the area around the butterfly garden protects the seedlings from the wayward Jackrabbit hopping buy, or from the Milkweed being trampled underfoot. Once your Milkweed plant is established in the garden it become drought tolerant, much more so than the seedling which will need a green thumb. Try to establish a minimum of six Milkweed plants so that the caterpillars can be sustained. Do not panic, if your Milkweed plants lose their leaves from the shock of transplanting, they will likely recover.

Common or Golden Butterflyweed Asclepias curassavica
Common or Golden Butterflyweed Asclepias curassavica

To keep the ground around your Milkweed moist, use mulch around the stem, and keep the soil moist but do not over-water. The mulch will also prevent competition from weeds around your Milkweed butterfly garden. The plants will grow about 3 feet high, and should be spaced one to two feet apart, and no closer than 6 inches. Check your seed packet for further information. Fertilize the butterfly garden two to three times over the course of the growing season, or apply a time-release fertilizer.

The Monarch butterfly caterpillar will not be able to eat the Milkweed plant, until it has stalks, and leaves enough to eat, about 2 months after germination. To protect your plant in the garden from pests use only garlic or neem oil as a pesticide or spray with water containing ordinary dish detergent to take care of any aphid infestation. Import ladybugs to your butterfly garden to also milk your aphids.

Trim your plants after they grow to a height of 8-12 inches, to create a bushier plant with more leaves and stems for the caterpillars. So this means after about one month of growing, pinch the top of the stem which will force the plant to begin a new stem of growth. Once your plant is in your garden, and found by a Monarch Butterfly caterpillar, the plant will supply one caterpillar with more than 20 leaves so it can mature. To ensure that your plant is sturdy for the next year, cut the milkweed back about four inches above the soil, (above where the leaves come out), so it will return fuller and bushier next year. Try to plant a variety of Milkweed species as a back up, for your Monarch butterfly caterpillars, in case one species is slower growing when the Monarchs arrive. The Monarch butterfly will be able to detect your butterfly garden from 32 kilometers (20 miles) away via the smell of the plant. Buying a Milkweed species particular to Saskatchewan will enable it to survive the harshest of winters. If you are able to get a lush and vibrant butterfly garden of Milkweed established, you can purchase Monarch butterfly eggs or chrysalis to introduce the Monarch to your community neighbourhood.

So, educate yourself, consider your butterfly garden site carefully, and with a bit of knowledge, your newly found green thumb could go a long ways to saving Monarch Butterflies. The successful creation of a butterfly or pollinator garden may attract other butterflies, or perhaps even a hummingbird or two along the way.

We forget that we owe our existence to the presence of Trees. As far as forest cover goes, we have never been in such a vulnerable position as we are today. The only answer is to plant more Trees – to Plant Trees for Our Lives.

Mardon Skipper (Polites mardon) interdependent upon Early Blue Violet (Viola adunca)
Mardon Skipper (Polites mardon) interdependent upon Early Blue Violet (Viola adunca)

“Every prairie flower and shrub has special insect species that depends on it for the food
plant.”The Native Plant Society of Saskatchewan, Inc.

  • The Monarch butterfly owes its existence to the presence of the Milkweed.
  • The Mardon Skipper (Polites mardon) butterfly owes its existence to the Early Blue Violet (Viola adunca).
  • The Mardon Moth is interdependant upon the Soapweed (Yucca glauca) a species at risk. The the Five-spotted Bogus Yucca Moth and the Strecker’s Giant Skipper also rely on the Soapweed.
  • The Mormon Metalmark butterfly prairie population is a species at risk dependent upon the buckwheat host plant.
  • The Amblyscirtes simius, the simius roadside skipper, larvae feed on blue grama grass (Bouteloua gracilis). The adults butterfly rely on flower nectar, including Penstemon, Cirsium and Verbena.
  • Small Checkered-Skipper butterfly caterpillar relies upon the prairie flowers; Alkali mallow (Sida hederacea), scarlet globemallow (Sphaeralcea coccinea), and desert globemallow (S. ambigua); all of the mallow family (Malvaceae).

The interdependence of these butterflies upon their environment is as crucial as the Milkweed is to the Monarch Butterfly, and as Richard St. Barbe Baker explains, there is an acute interdependence which exists between the tree, nay the global forest and the survial of man.

Species at risk: Mormon Metalmark (Apodemia mormo) butterfly depends on buckwheat host plant.
Species at risk: Mormon Metalmark (Apodemia mormo) butterfly depends on buckwheat host plant.

BIBLIOGRAPHY:

Alberta Native Plant Council. Rare Vascular Plants of Alberta. Editor Linda Kershaw. Edition illustrated. Publisher University of Alberta, 2001. ISBN 0888643195, 9780888643193.

Allen, Janet. Growing milkweed for monarchs. Stewardship Garden. 2015.

Butterflies and moths of North America } collecting and sharing about Lepidoptera. Simius Roadside-Skipper

Butterflies and moths of North America } collecting and sharing about Lepidoptera. Simius Roadside-SkipperSmall Checkered-Skipper
Pyrgus scriptura (Boisduval, 1852)
NotAmblyscirtes simius W.H. Edwards, 1881
Common Roadside-Skipper (Amblyscirtes simius) iNaturalist.org.

Finding, Collecting, and Growing Milkweed

Monarch Lab » Biology & Research » Monarch Rearing » Finding, Collecting, and Growing Milkweed
Department of Fisheries, Wildlife & Conservation Biology. University of Minnesota.

Growing Instruction for Milkweed. Live Monarch.

Growing Milkweed Monarch Watch.

Gomez, Tony. 7 Spring Planting Secrets for Growing Great Milkweed. Monarch Butterfly Garden February 26. 2017.

Gomez, Tony. Fall planting Milkweed 10 steps. Monarch Butterfly Garden. Oct 18. 2017.

Hayduk, Evan. SPP Early Blue Violet (vola Adunca) January 12, 2012.
Heather. How to Germinate and Grow Milkweed Seed. American Meadows Gardening News and Tips.

Lee, Glen. Asclepias ovalifolia (Low Milkweed) Asclepias speciosa (Showy Milkweed) Asclepias verticillata (Whorled Milkweed) Asclepias viridiflora (Green Milkweed) – photos and description Saskatchewan Wildflowers.

Mormon Metalmark Prairie population>a? Species at Risk (Mormon Metalmark) Species at Risk Public Registry. Government of Canada.
Native Plant Database Asclepias ovalifolia Evergreen.

Nowick, Elain. Historical Common Names of Great Plains Plants, with Scientific Names Index: Volume II: Scientific . Names Index. Volume 2 of Historical Common Names of Great Plains Plants, with Scientific Names Index. Publisher Lulu.com, 2014. ISBN 1609620607, 9781609620608

Species at Risk Registry Government of Canada. Species at Risk Act (SARA).

Will my dogs eat my milkweed? What about the kids? Monarch Watch. October 10, 2014.

Wikipedia. Asclepias curassavica


Native Plants As Habitat For Wildlife
Speaker Notes 2001 Workshop and Annual General Meeting. The Native Plant Society of Saskatchewan, Inc.

Witherill, Richard. Milkweed. Paws Dog Day Care.

“There are three kinds of men. The one that learns by reading. The few who learn by observation. The rest of them have to pee on the electric fence for themselves.” ~ Will Rogers

For more information:
Migrate to Mexico to see the Monarchs

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