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A Love Affair with Monarchs and Milkweed

Oh, how I love to raise Monarchs! Those striped larvae that transform themselves into lovely butterflies fascinate me. Watching them munch away on Milkweed generates great joy and anticipation.

I’ve observed Monarch (Danaus plexippus) caterpillars morph into chrysalises countless times and am always mesmerized. It brings such pleasure to release butterflies that I’ve raised into my garden, especially when they linger.

Monarch Life Cycle

Stages of Monarch butterflies from caterpillar to adult. Top Row (left to right): Fifth-instar caterpillar traveling on a wire to find a good place to pupate. Caterpillar in the “J” position. Newly-formed chrysalis, still showing wrinkles. Middle Row (l-r): Completed chrysalis, also called a pupa. Chrysalis with nearly transparent cuticle signaling the eminent eclosure (emergence) of the adult butterfly. Freshly-eclosed Monarch hanging on to the remnant of its chrysalis. Bottom Row (l-r): Monarch filling its wings with abdominal fluid before they harden. Fully-fledged adult Monarch nectaring on a yellow variety of Tropical Milkweed.

If you want to raise healthy Monarchs, you have to have Milkweed (Asclepias spp.) and lots of it! Anyone who has ever raised Monarch butterflies has probably, at one point or another, run out of Milkweed. I’ve driven 30 miles to the nearest reliable supplier to replenish Milkweed for hungry caterpillars. It’s astonishing how much these caterpillars devour during their last two instars.

Consumed Milkweed

Monarch caterpillars that have eaten their Milkweed cuttings down to the bare stems.

The best way to get Milkweed is to grow it yourself. You have more control over the quantity and quality of your plants. That said, some species of Milkweed can be a chore to grow.

Tropical Milkweed (Asclepias curassavica), on the other hand, is easy to grow from seed or propagate from cuttings. (Tropical Milkweed is also known as Scarlet Milkweed, Mexican Butterfly Weed, Bloodflower, Redhead, Cotton Bush and Wild Ipecacuanha.) To obtain seeds for Tropical Milkweed, Click Here for a selection of varieties and prices.

While Tropical Milkweed readily grows from seeds, if you already have stock in your garden, growing it from cuttings is the easiest and fastest way to expand the number of milkweed plants needed to feed your hungry caterpillars.

Tropical Milkweed Propagation

Tropical Milkweed propagation (left to right): Stem cuttings placed in potting soil. Plants after four weeks. Full-size, blooming plants after just eight weeks.

Once the Monarch caterpillars have stripped the Milkweed plant of all its leaves, cut the stems by pruning the plant and leaving about 5-6 inches (12-15 cm) of stems on the plant. It is painful, I know. But, this is actually a very good way to stimulate more growth and fullness of the plant.

Many Monarch experts also believe that by cutting back Milkweed, of any variety, it can reduce OE (Ophryocystis elektroscirrha) infections in Monarch butterfly populations.  OE is a naturally-occurring protozoan parasite that can infect Monarch and Queen (Danaus gilippus) butterflies to the point of harming its hosts.

Even if you do not want to propagate new plants from stem cuttings, Tropical Milkweed should be pruned back on occasion, as it gets too “leggy” and ineffective at producing leaves and flowers. Also, I find that pruning Milkweed helps control and even eliminate Aphids (Aphididae spp.).

prunned

These four Tropical Milkweed plants have just been trimmed. Pruning will stimulate growth, help eliminate OE spores and create bushier branches with more flowers. The two small Tropical Milkweed plants at the top of the photo were grown from seed.

Tropical Milkweed Cuttings in 4-inch Pots

If you have potting soil and containers available, simply place the stems directly into the potting soil. Keep the soil moist until you start to see leaves sprouting from the nodes (the bumps on the stems where leaves used to be). At the same time, roots will be growing from the nodes underground. These are 4-inch (10 cm) nursery pots. Click Here to find similar pots.

You can also place the stem cuttings in water and soak them until they grow roots. The cuttings will grow leaves within a few days and roots in a week or two. However, you can transfer them directly to potting soil anytime. Just remember to keep the soil moist where you have planted the new stem cuttings. You can also speed up the growth by adding Miracle-Gro®, mixed half-strength each time you water. Click Here for Miracle-Gro®. Either dry or liquid works well.

Budding Milkweed Cuttings

Budding stems of Tropical Milkweed cuttings sitting in water and placed in a window for light. Don’t let the cuttings dry out.

I grow most of my Tropical Milkweed in pots. After two years, I retire them to a garden bed, removing them from their pots and trimming their roots lightly, because they can become root bound. One season, I grew 200 plants from cuttings. It was a lot of work but I was able to feed hundreds of Monarch caterpillars!

Milkweed Growing in a Tent

These Tropical Milkweed plants are growing in a screened-in canopy tent to prevent Monarchs and Queens from laying eggs. In the tent, I can also regulate how much water they get and can better control pests such as OE and Aphids. If these tents aren’t available locally, you can Order Here.

If you have a love affair with Monarchs and Milkweed like I do. There’s no cure. Accept it. Embrace it. Feed the passion and reap the joy!

Raising Black Swallowtail Butterflies for Fun

One of my favorite butterflies to raise is the Eastern Black Swallowtail (Papilio polyxenes). It’s an easy species to attract to your garden. You just need to provide their host plants on which the females lay their eggs, including Dill, Fennel, Parsley, Rue or Golden Alexander and they will find them.

Eastern Black Swallowtail and Host Plants

The beautiful Eastern Black Swallowtail (Papilio polyxenes) butterfly and five of its host plants, including common herbs: Dill, Fennel and Parsley.

Can’t find these host-plant seeds locally? Order them here:
• Dill (Anethum graveolens)
• Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare)
• Golden Alexander (Zizia aurea)
• Curly Parsley (Petroselinum crispum)
• Rue (Ruta graveolens)

Female Eastern Black Swallowtail ovipositing

Female Eastern Black Swallowtail butterfly ovipositing an egg on Fennel. Look closely at the end of her abdomen. Can you see the cream-colored egg?

Eastern Black Swallowtail Eggs

Eastern Black Swallowtail butterfly eggs on Rue and Fennel leaves. Collecting eggs and larvae from your garden or field and getting them home safely is easier with small condiment cups and lids. Click here to order a package.

Once you find the eggs or tiny caterpillars, remove the leaves or pieces of the plant they are on and place them inside a closed container. I like to use the salad containers from fast-food restaurants, but you can use any container with a lid. I use a push pin to punch air holes in the lid. Line the bottom of the container with paper towel or coffee filter. Be sure to provide plenty of the host plant leaves on which you found the eggs and/or caterpillars.

Salad Container Repurposed as a Butterfly Habitat

This easy-to-assemble habitat is nothing more than a fast-food salad container lined with a coffee filter. A few holes punched in the top with a push pin complete the project. These Eastern Black Swallowtail caterpillars are dining on Curly Parsley.

Caterpillar Condo

I call this my caterpillar condo.

Check on your caterpillars each day to make sure they have enough food to feast on. Once they get bigger you will need to empty the fecal droppings (known as frass) each day and add a new coffee filter or paper towel plus fresh food.

Caterpillar Frass

Caterpillars make a mess! Be sure to clean your cage every day to keep your caterpillars healthy and happy.

All Five Caterpillar Instars

Caterpillars shed their skin five times as they grow. These stages are called instars. In this photo, you can see all five instars of the Eastern Black Swallowtail butterfly caterpillar represented on my finger.

When they are ready to pupate, they will crawl to the top of the lid and make their chrysalis. Many people like to put sticks inside the container for them to use, but that is not necessary. However, it can be fun to see the different colors the chrysalis becomes.

Pupating Caterpillars

The caterpillar will crawl to the top and spin a silk girdle on the container lid before it sheds its skin for the final time.

Chameleon-like Pupae

Chameleon-like, the Eastern Black Swallowtail caterpillar will pupate with colors that match its surroundings in order to camouflage itself.

It usually takes about two weeks for the butterfly to emerge from the chrysalis. You can then experience the joy of holding and releasing your new butterfly.

Eastern Black Swallowtail on finger

A newly-emerged Eastern Black Swallowtail butterfly ready for its first flight.

Flowers for Fall-Migrating Monarch Butterflies

One of the surest ways to see fall-migrating Monarch butterflies is to plant flowers that attract them. Monarchs will drop from the sky for the nectar they need for energy during fall migrations.

(For your convenience, you can follow links on the various plants mentioned here to check for availability and price.)

Asters (Aster spp.) are a favorite of Monarchs (Danaus plexippus) in the fall, particularly the New England Aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae).

Monarch on aster

Monarch nectaring on Aster.

Sunflowers (Helianthus spp.), including Mexican Sunflower (Tithonia speciosa) and Swamp Sunflowers (Helianthus angustifolius) are late bloomers and provide nectar for migrating Monarchs.

Monarch on Orange Mexican Sunflower

Monarch nectaring on Orange Mexican Sunflower.

Monarch on Swamp Sunflower

Monarch nectaring on Swamp Sunflower.

Many Lantanas (Lantana spp.) are still blooming. Last year I had several Monarchs stop in late October in my North Carolina, USA, garden to sip the nectar from ‘Miss Huff’ Lantana (Lantana camara ‘Miss Huff’)

Monarch butterfly nectaring on ‘Miss Huff’ Lantana.

Goldenrod (Solidago spp.) is a wonderful fall blooming perennial that attracts Monarchs and comes in many different varieties.

Goldenrod

Goldenrod provides an enticing buffet for pollinators, including fall-migrating Monarchs and other butterflies.

Ironweed (Vernonia spp.) always attracts Monarchs.

Monarch sampling Ironweed nectar.

Other great nectar flowers to plant for fall-migrating Monarchs include these:
Purple Coneflower (Echinacea purpurea)
Autumn Joy Stonecrop (Sedum ‘Herbstfreude’)
Dense Blazingstar (Liatris spicata)
Showy Goldenrod (Solidago speciosa)
Anise Hyssop (Agastache foeniculum)
Joe-Pye Weed (Eupatorium fistulosum)
Rose Verbena (Verbena canadensis)