Sunday, September 21, 2014

Growing up Growing Monarchs - a family guide

There have been fewer things so magical in my recent life as a mom than having raised monarch caterpillars with my two girls. Over the last three summers we have released at least fifty and every time one emerges from its chrysalis it's just as exciting as the very first time.

We've even been known to eat breakfast with a critter cage full of chrysalises as a centerpiece knowing one could come out at any time.

It's easy to raise monarchs with your family, put this step-by-step tutorial in your back pocket for next summer since all the monarchs now are speeding their way to Mexico to spend the winter:

1) Find an egg or caterpillar. Easiest way to do this is find a patch of milkweed, or even better, create a monarch way station in your yard and hopefully the monarch females will come to you!
Checking milkweed for eggs at Sally Pond in Ipswich, MA

2) Look on the underside of the milkweed leaves for the tiny creamy white/yellowish eggs, monarch mommas usually choose the newest leaves at the top. The eggs are about twice the size of the period at the end of this sentence.

3) Clip the top part of the plant containing the egg, or caterpillar, bring it home and stick it in a cup of water. I find a hummus container or take-out soup container works well. I cut a small hole in the container lid so the plant stands up and the caterpillar can't fall in the water. Then place the whole cup and plant in a large jar, small aquarium or plastic bin with a top so the caterpillars don't wander all over your house when they're looking for a spot to make their chrysalis.

4) The egg will hatch in 3-4 days and then you have a beautiful caterpillar that will grow at an incredible rate. If human newborns grew as fast, and big, as monarch caterpillars they would be the size of a school bus in 14 days! Your kids will marvel over the amount of caterpillar poo (called frass) one caterpillar can make!
A 12-day-old caterpillar

5) Keep your monarch caterpillar supplied with fresh milkweed for around 14 days and you will be rewarded with a beautiful chrysalis. The caterpillar then dissolves within its new house and reforms as a butterfly in about another 14 days.

Monarch chrysalises

6) If you're lucky you'll get to see your butterfly emerge. Let its wings dry for a few hours or even a whole day before you release it.  It won't need nectar right away. We even tag our fall emerging monarchs with a tiny sticker that contains an ID number and email address. Anyone that finds it along its migration south to Mexico can report the butterfly to the Monarch Watch tagging program. Even my 4 and 6-year-olds can put the tags on! (right)

Raising monarch butterflies is definitely something every kid should experience in their childhood. And with the population being down 90% every female adult butterfly released is another one that can lay up to 300 eggs to help bring this species back from the brink. So plant some milkweed early next spring, look for some eggs and have fun!

Monday, September 15, 2014

Fall Plantings for Pollinators

A newly tagged monarch on Mexican sunflower
Creating a beautiful and functioning pollinator garden means having blooms from the earliest bluestars in late April all the way to the last flowering sedum that survives the first frosts. Good nectar sources are especially important during September and October for the millions of fall migrating monarchs that have to travel up to 2,500 miles to their winter grounds in the mountains of central Mexico. 

Monarch nectaring on butterflyweed

This generation of monarchs won't reproduce until next spring, so they don't necessarily need milkweeds for their offspring. Although, butterflyweed (my favorite milkweed -to the right) is still blooming in my garden and feeds many pollinators from monarchs to fritillaries to honeybees. 

My monarch waysation on September 14th.

I've tagged and let go more than a dozen monarchs amongst my flowers in the last few weeks. The tag numbers can be reported to Monarch Watch if they're recovered anywhere along the butterfly's migration. 

The newly released monarchs still have more than a dozen kinds of flowers to nectar on from the perennial black eyed susans, joe pye weed, sedum, garden phlox, ox-eye sunflowers and echinacea to the stunning annual mexican sunflower and red lantanas.  The best part about all these plants is once they're established they're drought tolerant. I haven't watered my monarch waystation all summer!

White chocolate snakeroot about to flower in mid-September
While some of my perennials are starting to fade, the white chocolate snakeroot is about to explode in a riot of delicate white flowers. Until that moment, this beautiful plant adds a stunning dark green and purple foliage to the garden. And then its tiny white flowers last until November, past when most other plants have gone to seed and the goldfinches descend for the feast. 

Garden phlox
Even if you just add a $1.98 pot of mums to a window box that little nectar source will go a long way to a bee, butterfly or hummingbird that wakes up on a 40 degree morning. A walk through any nursery will show you what's still blooming and many of those nurseries also have great end-of-year sales. I picked up this garden phlox (left) last year half off and it's going strong right now! So add some blooms to your fall garden. Your neighborhood pollinators will thank you. 

Black eyed susans amongst white snakeroot starting to flower

Tagged monarchs on black eyed susans

Eastern tiger swallowtail on joe pye weed


Friday, July 11, 2014

Project "Neighborhood Milkweed"

A month ago I ordered a flat of 32 swamp milkweed plugs from the Monarch Watch Milkweed Market. They were supposed to be 3" tall. When I opened the box they were nearly a foot tall! I had planned on growing them up and using them for clients next year but these were just begging to go in someone's garden right away.

I thought about my neighborhood and how so many people already had lovely gardens, they were just lacking milkweed. I typed up a letter explaining I had these 32 plants, that monarch caterpillars can only eat milkweed, why the species is declining and that everyone can help by adding this beautiful plant to their gardens. And the best part? They could take one for free. How extraordinary would it be if the whole neighborhood were a giant Monarch Waystation?

Before my kids and I even got back from delivering the 49 letters a plant was already taken. By the end of the week 20% of the neighborhood had milkweed in their yards. By this writing 20 houses, or 41% of the neighborhood now has milkweed!

I still have a few plants and I'm really hoping I can convince more neighbors to take them. I'm not worried about finding the milkweeds homes, I actually have a waiting list of friends all around Essex County who want a plant!

Monday, May 19, 2014

Monarch Waystation Plant List

A Monarch Waystation needs at least one species of milkweed to sustain monarch caterpillars as well as nectar sources to sustain the adults as they migrate. Native plants are best as they're almost always drought tolerant and also provide habitat for other butterfly species to propagate. Most insects will only use certain native host plants on which to lay their eggs.

Why you won't see butterfly bush on this list: Nurseries love to push the non-native butterfly bush to clients wanting a "butterfly garden". While I do have one in my yard (it was here when we bought the house) I would not purchase another one. No insect can actually use butterfly bush to reproduce. They will attract butterflies to your yard, but there are many even more beautiful native options becoming readily available at nurseries.

The following is a short list of easy-to-grow native options for your monarch garden or certified monarch waystation. They are all available at most local nurseries. The milkweeds and New Jersey Tea can be trickier to find, contact me for help if you can't locate any.

THE NATIVE MILKWEEDS: Necessary for monarch reproduction. Milkweeds are the only plants monarch caterpillars can eat.
Swamp milkweed, Asclepias incarnata
24" to 48"
Moist to wet, even flooding, but tolerates drought once established.
Partial shade to sun.
Cultivars also available with a white flower. 
To prevent this from sprouting up all over your yard just remove seed pods before they open up (or save the seeds and make more!)

Butterfly weed, Asclepias tuberosa
12" to 36"
Thrives in dry, sandy, even gravelly soil. Great for planting along a road, doesn't mind bad soil.
Full sun, will tolerate a few hours of shade.

NATIVE NECTAR SOURCES: These flowers sustain the monarchs on both their spring and fall migrations. Plant a variety to ensure something is always flowering.

Joe-Pye Weed, Eupatorium maculatum
36" to 96" tall. Can be trimmed back to keep shorter and will still re-flower. Flowers all summer.
Moist to wet, but drought tolerant once established.
Sun to partial sun.
Spreads by rhizomes, can be easily divided and shared with others. Neighbors are always asking me for clumps.

White Chocolate Snakeroot, Eupatorium rugosum
24" to 36"
Striking dark foliage with clusters of small white flowers in late summer into autumn, providing nectar during the monarch's fall migration.
Moist, but tolerates drought when well established.
Sun to partial shade.

 Blanket flower, Gaillardia sp.
Up to 24"
Blooms July through fall.
Drought tolerant once established.
Full sun, will tolerate a few hours of shade.
Summer Phlox, Phlox paniculata
36" to 60" tall
Moist soil, drought tolerant once established.
Sun to partial sun.
Flowers mid summer.
This newly emerged monarch female spent an hour on my phlox this past summer before it took off north.
Tickseed, Coreopsis lanceolata
 18" to 30" tall.
Moist to dry, drought tolerant once established.
Sun to partial sun.
Flowers early to mid summer.
Will produce more blooms if deadheaded regularly.

 Ox-eye Sunflower, Heliopsis helianthoides
36" to 60" tall.
Moist to dry, drought tolerant once established.
Sun to partial sun.
Flowers mid-summer.

 Yarrow, Achillea millefolium
18" to 24"
Well drained soil, drought tolerant.
Full sun.
Blooms late spring to mid summer.
 New Jersey Tea, Ceanothus americanus
A dense shrub up to 3 feet high and wide.
Does well in poor, dry soil, good for planting along a road side.
Flowers in June and July
Blazing Star, Liatris spicata
24" to 48"
Moist to wet, drought tolerant once established.
Sun to partial sun.
Flowers mid summer.
Also attracts hummingbirds.

Sweet Pepper Bush (Summersweet), 
Clethra alnifolia
Up to 8 feet tall and wide. Dwarf cultivars are available called "Hummingbird Summersweet" and are up to 4 feet tall and wide.
Moist to wet acidic soil, tolerates flooding. Slightly drought tolerant once established. 
Partial shade to sun.
Flowers July and August.
Also attracts hummingbirds and is a great alternative to butterfly bush.

NATIVES FOR ATTRACTING HUMMINGBIRDS: add some of these and hummingbirds won't be able to resist your monarch waystation.

Cardinal flower, Lobelia cardinalis
24" to 48"
Moist to wet, even flooded, but drought tolerant once established.
Sun to partial shade.
Tall stalk of crimson flowers in mid to late summer. Irresistible to hummingbirds.
Self seeds, you will find tiny ones popping up all over the place. They are easy to dig up and relocate as the parent plants don't often last more than a year or two.

Beesbalm (Oswego Tea), Monarda didyma
16" to 30"
Moist to dry.
Full sun, will tolerate a few hours of shade.
Flowers in summer, irresistible to hummingbirds.
Spreads by rhizomes, easy to divide and use to fill in areas of your garden or share. I am always digging this up and giving it away!

Recommended Plants for New England Monarch Gardens:

Milkweeds - the only plant monarch caterpillars eat:
Swamp milkweed, Asclepias incarnata
Butterfly weed, Asclepias tuberosa
Whorled Milkweed, Asclepias verticillata
Tropical milkweed (annual), Asclepias curassavica
Common milkweed, Asclepias syriaca (not recommended for small gardens)

Native Perennial Nectar Sources:
Yarrow, Achillea millefolium
Bluestar, Amsonia tabernaemontana
Tickseed, Coreopsis lanceolata
Coneflower, Echinacea purpurea
Joe-Pye Weed, Eupatorium maculatum
White Chocolate Snakeroot, Eupatorium rugosum
Blanket flower, Gaillardia sp
Sneezeweed, Helenium autumnale
Ox-eye Sunflower, Heliopsis helianthoides
Blazing Star, Liatris spicata
Beesbalm (Oswego Tea), Monarda didyma
Summer Phlox, Phlox paniculata
Black-eyed Susan, Rudbeckia sp.
Eastern foamflower, Tiarella cordifolia

Native nectar shrubs and host shrubs for other butterflies:
New Jersey Tea, Ceanothus americanus
Buttonbush, Cephalanthus occidentalis
Sweet Pepper Bush (Summersweet), Clethra alnifolia
Redtwig Dogwood, Cornus sericea
Itea virginiana, Virginia sweetspire
Spicebush, Lindera benzoin
White meadowsweet, Spirea alba
Steeplebush, Spirea tomentosa
American cranberry bush, Viburnum trilobum

Annuals to attract butterflies and hummingbirds:
Mexican sunflower

(Ascelpias incarnata)
(Ascelpias incarnata)

Saturday, May 17, 2014

What's popping up in the Monarch Waystation?

Swamp milkweed
According to Journey North Monarch butterflies have been spotted as close to Massachusetts as New Jersey. Although my neighbor swears he saw one in a nearby field last weekend. Whether or not that's true I've been out daily checking my rapidly growing swamp milkweed for eggs. It's only about six inches tall, but tall enough for a monarch to find, if they really are here already.

While awaiting the monarchs I've been busy digging up little swamp milkweed seedlings sprouting up under their larger parent plants. I've potted them up and they'll be planted in new monarch gardens I'm building for friends and family. If you don't want your milkweed to sprout up in your garden where you don't want it just simply remove the seed pods before they open up.

Swamp milkweed seedlings "found" in the monarch waystation

Butterfly weed and New Jersey Tea seeds were also planted earlier in the spring and have been growing up in the greenhouse. They're getting big enough to plant. The butterfly weed is going up along the dry wall of my big rain garden.

Butterfly weed and New Jersey Tea seedlings

The Monarch Waystation last summer.
Everyday the Monarch Waystation is more and more green. Even though the only things flowering right now are violets I've let naturalize, before I know it it will be a riot of the pinks, oranges, whites and purples of swamp milkweed, butterfly weed, joe pye weed, echinacea, blanket flower, garden phlox, chocolate snakeroot, ox-eye sunflowers and yarrow. Last year I didn't see our first monarch until July, I sure hope this year they turn up sooner. My whole family is patiently awaiting eggs and caterpillars!

The Monarch Waystation

Originally published June 4, 2012 on

I hadn't planned on creating a monarch waystation. Last weekend I rescued a few daylilies from the backyard where our fence was going in and quickly stuck them in a sunny spot near our mailbox, and I hit more plastic. This is an area of the yard that I hadn't planned on landscaping this summer, it's a border of dense beach roses (Rosa rugosa) where the rest of the yard was just bare mulch. At least it had plants, so it could wait. And I assumed since it had plants there wasn't any plastic sheeting, I was wrong.

 Of course I couldn't leave the plastic in and in tearing it out I discovered all the plants in this area, including the four foot high beach roses, were growing on top of the plastic. In getting out the plastic I ended up taking out a lot of the beach roses and suddenly had a nice patch of empty, sunny dirt.

Monarch on butterflyweed
That night I read an article in the summer edition of Country Gardens entitled "Of Milkweeds and Monarchs" (if I could find it online I would include the link) and its message about declining monarchs really struck home. The article sites many facts from, and I instantly went online and poured over their website. Simply put, monarch butterflies are in crisis for the following reasons:
  • Roundup resistant crops now dominate the midwest, meaning about 100 million acres of corn and beans are now sprayed with the glyphosate, creating milkweed-free fields. Monarchs making their way from the north to overwinter in Mexico now navigate a 1000 mile near-nectarless, flowerless, waterless landscape from Kansas through Oklahoma, Texas and into northern Mexico. 
  • Development of subdivisions, shopping centers, etc. now tops 6,000 acres a day. That's 2.2 million acres a year where there was often milkweed and other butterfly supporting plants. 
  • Roadside management practices of mowing and herbicides now often creates monocultures of grass, not native wildflowers. 
  • Illegal logging in the monarch's wintering forest in Mexico has diminished their former 23 acre habitat to a mere 5. 
Monarch on blazing star (Liatris)
It was clear what I had to do.  That nice, newly-cleared and plastic-free sunny patch was destined to be a monarch waystation (places that provide resources necessary for monarchs to produce successive generations and sustain their migration). In fact, the whole yard could qualify. I already planted nectar plants like blanket flower, sedum, beesbalm, blazing star and black eyed susans. I started a milkweed strain called butterflyweed (Asclepias tuberosa) from seeds this winter and they're about 4 inches tall now and will be amazing in a few years. I just needed at least one more milkweed species to qualify as a certified "monarch waystation" with

A few days ago I went out and purchased swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) and tomorrow a friend with a farm in Rowley is letting me take a few common milkweed plants (A. syriaca) from his unmown fields and then I will have all three species of native milkweed. Where there was once a monoculture of introduced beach rose there will now be milkweed, blanket flower, blazing star, yarrow, echinacea, cardinalflower, and Joe-pye weed. My three-year-old is now eagerly awaiting the appearance of those stunning little yellow and black caterpillars. She's already learned all about monarchs in her preschool and told me one day last fall that she just couldn't eat lunch because she was a monarch and was busy migrating to Mexico. I thought for her sake I would certify our new monarch waystation with monarchwatch and she could proudly display this sign.

As far as I can tell from the International Monarch Waystation Registry our waystation is the first certified in Ipswich, MA. I sure hope it's not the last. Stay tuned for photos of the finished, and flowering, monarch waystation.