Most of us now know that the migratory monarchs are in danger. A December 2013 census confirms the smallest population ever in the overwintering forests of central Mexico. Only seven small colonies were located, with coverage of 0.67 hectares, compared to more than 18 hectares of wintering adults measured in 1996. This drop is precipitous and disastrous for the species. According to monarch specialist Chip Taylor, director of Monarch Watch in Kansas, the current rate of decline will result in monarchs losing genetic viability in only a year or two. Monarchs are symbolic of all pollinators, including honeybees and native moths, which also are suffering from environmental change and serious population decreases.
How Can We Help?
We know now that it is time to help the monarch and the honey bee. All of our pollinators are at risk from the environmental changes that have swept away their worlds. For Earth Day this year, St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay set the goal of creating 250 butterfly gardens to celebrate the city’s 250th anniversary. He called on city residents to plant their own butterfly spaces and to participate in community gardens to improve the monarch’s access to nectar and egg-laying milkweeds. Wildflower-rich monarch gardens will help to feed all of our pollinators, as well as bring these magical, fluttering creatures into our parks and public spaces.
St. Louis County residents also must do their part to rescue this species. My garden currently has three milkweed species and dozens of native wildflowers blooming from April to frost. Monarchs rarely arrive here in St. Louis before May, but the last generation lingers well into the autumn. To be most helpful now, select fall-blooming nectar plants to add to your perennial border. In a recent conversation with Ellen Barredo of Bowood Farms in the Central West End, she noted that while they currently have stock in Asclepias, the new initiative has created huge demand for milkweeds and they will likely sell out completely. Most wholesalers of Asclepias seeds were sold out months ago as public awareness to the plight of monarchs has increased. But monarchs need more than just milkweeds! They feed on nectar from a wide variety of plants. They will need a floral restaurant on their long journey back to Mexico in the fall.
If you have more than just a border garden, consider establishing a milkweed zone with some of the more attractive native species. Missouri is host to 17 Asclepias species, many of them quite showy. The common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) is not the perfect companion for rosemary and tea roses. Considered ‘weedy,’ most farmers have been happy to eradicate it from their fields and gardeners would never plant it in the first place. We did not understand the consequences of the loss of common milkweed to monarch breeding: It is their primary nursery plant. Fortunately, many other milkweeds may serve as host and fit handsomely into our gardening plans.
My mother grew butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa) in a sunny border, with its bright tangerine-orange flower clusters and white, milky sap common to all of the plants in this genus. The cultivar ‘Hello Yellow’ offers a clear, bright yellow blossom that is easier to combine with other flowers in a more subtle color palette. Swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) does not actually require a swamp, but is perfect for pond-side plantings and rain gardens. It will even grow on drier areas despite its name. The wild form has rose flowers, with a pink cultivar named ‘Cinderella’ and a white selection called ‘Ice Ballet.’ One non-native milkweed commonly grown here is the blood flower (Asclepias curassavica). It is from South American and as such it is not hardy but performs well as an annual for terrace pots and garden borders. An award-winner, blood flower has earned the rank of Plant of Merit at the Missouri Botanical Garden.
If you have a lot of acreage, steep slopes or waste areas, converting them to butterfly habitat would serve our pollinators well. Once you establish your nectar garden or milkweed reserve, register it online at Monarch Watch, monarchwatch.org, and gain certification for your site. Wouldn’t it be lovely for St. Louis to have dozens of new entries to show our commitment to this beautiful and graceful species?
Perfect Natives for Your Prairie
By now, most of the milkweeds will be sold out for the year. So if you want to help the migrating monarchs make it back south, but would like something more novel than black-eyed susans, try some of these easy-to-grow, drought- and heat-tolerant Midwest natives. Most are deer-resistant and reliable, well suited to larger natural areas and attractive in wildflower gardens. Our top 10:
1. Blazingstar (Liatris spp.) – striking purple spikes in mid-to-late summer
2. Blue star (Amsonia tabernaemontana) – pale, sky-blue flowers on a semi-shrub form
3. Boneset (Eupatorium perfoliatum) – white flowered, common at the edge of woods and prairies
4. Cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis) – brilliant scarlet spires, good for damp locations and rain gardens
5. Goldenrod (Solidago speciosa) – plant on banks where you want it to spread—it will…
6. Letterman’s ironweed (Vernonia lettermannii) – compact late-bloomer with deep purple flowers
7. Gray-headed coneflower (Ratibida pinnata) – dainty yet tough, with falling yellow petals and dark cone
8. New England aster (Symphyotricum novae-angliae, formerly Aster) – queen of the autumn prairie
9. Showy beardtongue (Penstemon spp.) – very floriferous and tolerates dry, rocky conditions
10. Wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa) – summer bloom produces lots of nectar