Thursday, July 10, 2014

If You Plant It They Will Come: Monarchs in Portland

Monarch butterflies are something you don't see very often in Portland. Until recently, I thought they just did not travel this far north. But, in an effort to help preserve their dwindling habitat, I planted common milkweed (Asclepias speciosa) a couple of years ago as it is native to the area and is the host plant for monarchs, i.e., the only food that monarch caterpillars eat.

Photo: Janet Loughrey

I thought that at the very least: well, it's a pretty plant.
 It took three solid years before it actually did anything, but now it thrives in the hell strip, carefree and virtually zero maintenance.




 Seed pods from last fall.


 The flower buds are really stunning, as are the flowers when in bloom:


 Finally growing, it attracts all kinds of bees; they really enjoy this plant. That was all I expected from it when out of the blue last week I spotted this critter:


I positively identified him/her as a monarch caterpillar. WOW, were we happy! I couldn't believe it. There he was, all alone, munching away on the Asclepias speciosa leaves. Within a day, he got at least a half an inch larger. We had such great plans - at the advice of a friend of ours who lives in the Bay Area and at one time in his life raised monarchs, to watch him grow, form a chrysalis and eventually burst forth as a full-fledged monarch. We were considering bringing the chrysalis inside in a makeshift habitat to protect him. 

I contacted my friend and garden writer Janet Loughrey who writes for fine gardening magazines such as Garden Design, and who lives nearby. I had coincidentally just read an article she had written in Garden Design about the decline of monarchs and what we can do about it....I knew Janet would be as thrilled as we were. She was thrilled, and so came out and took these fabulous photographs:

Photo: Janet Loughrey


Photo: Janet Loughrey


Photo: Janet Loughrey
We affectionately named him Mikey after our friend in the Bay Area. Just think of it - a monarch had to have visited the plant sometime earlier this spring, laid eggs and this one guy survived. That a monarch came this far north makes me wonder whether they were looking for milkweed and had to come this far to find it. I don't know, but I do know that growing up in Portland I never (that I know of) saw monarch butterflies, so, maybe. In any event, here was Mikey and we couldn't be prouder. 

But then, sadly, after the fourth day, he was gone. I suppose that a bird got him, I mean look at him! So colorful. Easy to spot. Nature took its course. 

This will not deter us, however. We are going to watch for them next year and if we spot any, we thought of putting netting over the whole plant. It's a lesson for us all, that yes, if you plant it and they need it, they will come. It also strikes me that, yes, after all this effort to create a safe, pesticide and herbicide-free habitat that it really does make a difference. It's worth it, even if Mikey the monarch caterpillar is not anywhere to be found. I know there are more Mikeys in the future. 


How can you attract monarchs and other beauties to your garden? There are many tips, here is a link for more detail. Plant milkweed, it's the only plant that they will lay eggs on and is the only plant the caterpillars eat. Plant nectar-producing plants such as echinacea, sunflower, aster, zinnia, sage and Indian blanket. Don't use pesticides, period. There are other ways. Have aphids? Spray them off with a hose or attract ladybugs. Have slugs? Beer. I go through an 18-pack of Pabst Blue Ribbon every month in the summer. I catch slugs the size of koi goldfish. Don't use herbicides. There are other ways. Want to kill off grass? Black plastic, cardboard, etc. Weeds in the cracks? Boiling water. There are a multitude of ideas I won't get into here, but trust me.

Monarchs are in decline, mainly due to habitat loss. Herbicides such as Roundup, whose active ingredient is the poison Glyphosate, are also part of the problem as it kills pollinator plants, and anything else it contacts. Safari, with the active ingredient dinotefuran, caused the death of 25,000 bumble bees in Wilsonville, Oregon last year. Similar pesticides are also partly to blame. 

Just sayin'.

Here's to Mikey, and more of his kind visiting our fair city hopefully next season.

UPDATE: Here's a link to a post by fellow blogger Amy Campion (The World's Best Gardening Blog) on how to grow your own milkweed from seed. Great post from March 16, 2015. 

Thank you for reading and until next week, happy gardening!

24 comments :

  1. When I was back in the Midwest, I was in butterfly heaven. I learned how to raise butterflies indoors, and I raised monarchs, viceroys, red-spotted purples, and spicebush, tiger, giant, pipevine, zebra, and black swallowtails. The swallowtails were especially amazing, because if they went into chrysalis too late in the year, they would go dormant until spring. They had to be kept cold, so I stored them in the fridge until spring and when I let them out in spring, they emerged like magic.

    You want to take in the caterpillars when they're as young as possible, because parasitic wasps will sometimes lay their eggs in the caterpillars and the larvae will eat them later from the inside out. Gruesome, I know. Ideally, you take them in as eggs. All kinds of things can destroy the caterpillars outside, so if you bring them in and know how to properly raise them, they will have a far, FAR greater chance of making it to adulthood.

    For the caterpillars that had gone into chrysalis, I made a special cage for them so they would be contained, but wouldn't hurt themselves if they emerged and I wasn't home at the time to let them out. I got an old lampshade and took all the fabric off and then covered the wire frame with mosquito netting. I could see inside, and the butterflies wouldn't bang up their wings if they flew around inside.

    I would be happy to show you exactly how to raise monarchs and to also take some Asclepias speciosa seed off your hands! I've seen a fair amount of western tiger swallowtails around here, too, so we could also give that a try.

    You might consider also expanding your patch of milkweed. The bigger it is, the more easily it is found next time. Good luck!

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    1. Wow, Amy, thank you for sharing such great information! I will take you up on it and yes, I will happily give you some seed! Anyone else? The swallowtails are beautiful too, we have seen them fluttering about fairly regularly, so ...yay! Have already planted more milkweed...maybe I will take out something to expand the patch. Thank you thank you for this info!

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    2. Keep an eye out for monarch eggs on your milkweed. They usually lay them on the underside of the leaves. They are white and sort of football-shaped with ridges. If you see any, let me know.

      You can also check wild patches of milkweed if you know of any. Even if the caterpillars have started out life eating a different species of milkweed, you can continue to raise them at home on your species. Monarchs are the only species that can switch food source that I know of. Black swallowtails for example can eat fennel or rue or parsley or several other foods, but once they start on one food, they have to stick with it or they will die.

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    3. Amy, I have seed pods too. You should teach us how to sow them this fall!

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  2. Ooh….I'll grow those next year. I had a plant last year…dead of course . I would love Monarchs in the garden , The swallowtail come for the Phlox which is really a pleasure to see , thank you for the reminder !

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    1. Oh, yes the phlox are great for pollinator plants. Great reminder on your end, too! Thanks, Linda!

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  3. Where did you buy your plant? I'd happily put one in my parking strip.

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    1. Hi Mindy, I bought mine from Portland Nursery. I have also seen them at Bosky Dell Natives and maybe Garden Fever...if I see any around I will let you know! Also, I can send you some seed if you wish later this fall.

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  4. Hey, Tamara, I just thought of something. Your caterpillar was pretty big. Quite possibly it didn't get eaten, but went into chrysalis. Look around the surrounding area. They usually like to crawl away from the food source and hang from a branch or stem nearby.

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    1. Hi Amy, yes - that's a good point. We looked everywhere, maybe he is the master of disguise. We are keeping up hope that Mikey lives!

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  5. Congrats on your Monarch caterpillar! How exciting! We were impressed with your robust milkweed plants (open garden tour a month or so ago) so we bought a small one from Bosky Dell Nursery and it's growing like a weed ;-) Also ordered seeds from online Prairie Moon Nursery to plant this fall so we can hopefully have a patch of milkweed next spring. The fact that you actually had a Monarch visit your few plants is so inspiring!

    Steve & Jackie

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    1. Hi Steve and Jackie, thanks again for visiting last month! Yes, we are thrilled that the caterpillar chose us. Good that you planted some...it takes a while to take off as it has a very deep tap root (I am told). Don't give up if it doesn't do anything for a couple of years!

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  6. I've been growing and giving away plants and seed of native Oregon milkweeds since 1998. For details see Facebook.com/oregonmilkweed.

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    1. Thank you for posting this! Yes, I would encourage anyone to contact the Oregon Milkweed Project, indeed. Thank you thank you!

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  7. Hoping to see monarchs visiting as I loads of milkweed for them...but none yet

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    1. Oh, I hope you do see some one day....! Keep the faith.

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  8. The chrysalis needs to be in a sunny spot, or just an inch or so out of the sunny spot. This is because when the butterfly emerges, it needs the sun to help dry out and harden its beautiful wings.

    Best of luck for your milkweed to get eaten to the ground by fat, healthy monarch caterpillars. It's the only non-weed in the garden we want to get eaten up.

    Really enjoyed visiting your beautiful garden on the Fling; thanks for sharing the beauty of it.

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    1. Thanks for the advice, Hoover Boo! Good to know, and thank you for your kind words :)

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  9. I have loads of orange milkweed and a few stands of swamp milkweed. I only saw a few monarchs last year and it could have been the same one, just recounted. I only had a few caterpillars. I'm hoping for more this year. That's so fabulous that you already have them in your garden! They won't arrive here for another month.

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    1. I'm glad you had some, at least! I hope you get many this year - let's all hope for lots of them.

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  10. Congrats on Mikey, I hope he is indeed hiding out somewhere for you to discover. I would love some seed, but only if you or Amy helps me make it become a plant.

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    1. Hahha..thanks, Danger. I like to think he crawled off someplace and turned into a butterfly in secret. I will gladly give you seeds, I know nothing about growing them from seed but it can't hurt to sprinkle some around the garden!!

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  11. Great post, Tamara. I'd like to think that Milky went into hiding to form his/her cocoon. So this is what I'm going to think, by golly!!! Besides, I've read that monarch caterpillars are poisonous to birds. I wrote about milkweed and monarchs in my August garden column in NW Boomer & Senior News. Milkweed is a really pretty plant and should be in every garden. We need to start a movement.

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    1. Thanks, Grace - I know, I would like to think that too and choose to do so. I know about the poisonous thing, and you know - it's so strange, I mean one minute he was there and the next, just gone. Not sure, it's a mystery to be sure. Milkweed is a gorgeous plant, I hope people plant it even just for that fact, plus it's native and plus the monarchs need it. I'm with you, Grace! Milkweed for everyone! Actually there is a Milkweed Project page on Facebook, they will hook you up with free seeds and/or plants, check them out anyone who is in need. I you want some seeds, I have those too, but I don't know how to grow them from seed. Send me your address people and I'll give you what I have until it's gone. Cheers and thanks for commenting, Grace and everyone!!

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