Though the southward butterfly migration is just beginning, we are already having a banner monarch season in Savannah, Ga., and elsewhere in the South compared to recent years. For this we are most happy and hoping everyone starts to see this trend. Our spring and summer growing season was superb.
There was no missing the bright orange native butterfly weeds as you drove across the South. They stood out like blazing lanterns in patches along the roadside. This species known as Asclepias tuberosa is native from zones 3 to 10, and hopefully you saw some in your area. This is just one of several milkweed species that are the lifeblood of the Monarch butterfly.
Why are they the lifeblood? This is the only species on which the monarch lays her eggs and which the colorful caterpillars then feed. Don’t let the weed name deter you. The orange flowers will certainly enhance the landscape, but watching the life cycle of the monarch that follows is something that the whole family will remember.
When the Monarchs come to feast on the nectar, you may not even notice them laying eggs. The resulting caterpillars seem to be starving creatures literally stripping the leaves and flowers, making the plant look like a pencil cactus.
The caterpillars will grow from tiny to huge in what seems like days. Then about the time you think the plant is dead, new growth will appear and soon you’ll notice even more butterflies. Congratulations: You’re a proud parent. While these milkweed species are so important as a larval food sources you will also notice other butterflies and even hummingbirds feasting on the nectar.
This year at the Coastal Georgia Botanical Gardens in Savannah, we planted several dozen plants representing four different milkweed species. We plan on increasing this as we develop a true butterfly garden. We combined them with good pollinator plants like agastache or anise hyssop, salvias and lantanas. Daily we see visitors out photographing butterflies of all sorts, but especially monarchs and their caterpillars.
If your garden center doesn’t have butterfly weed plants for sale or other milkweed species, they may have seed packets. You can also collect seeds from plants this time of the year. Watch closely because the seedpods will split open as they mature, and the seeds will become airborne. Ours are flying about as we speak. Transplanting from the wild is not recommended because they have long taproots and because our wild areas need to keep them. Collect seeds from your friends or gardens that might allow this kind of access.
Growing from seed is simple: The small seeds should be lightly covered with soil that is kept moist until germination. Once planted in the garden, they are considered drought-tolerant and should be watered sparingly but deeply when needed. Fertilizer needs are low – just give them a light application in the spring with the emergence of new growth.
When you see caterpillars feeding, remember not to spray an insecticide. Instead think of this as a backyard wildlife habitat. Better yet create a butterfly garden, and get certified with the North American Butterfly Association. You’ll be the coolest garden around with an official Certified Butterfly Garden sign.
Believe it or not, there are named selections of the butterfly weed. Gay Butterflies (orange, red and yellow mixed), Orange Flame (orange), Vermillion (red) and Hello Yellow (yellow) are the leading selections.
With a little searching you will also find there are several varieties of of Aslepias incarnata or swamp milkweed for sale. This butterfly magnet comes in pinks, reds and whites. We planted Soulmate with cherry pink flowers, but keep your eyes open for Ice Ballet and Cinderella.
Wherever you live there are native milkweed species you can grow. Start your search now to be ready for spring. In the South, where our growing season is long, we can still plant to create a fall butterfly garden. You’ll be doubly happy with plants that not only are beautiful, but serve as a larval food source for monarch butterflies while providing nectar as well.