By Kylee Baumle
The monarch butterflies have returned from their overwintering sites for the summer. If they are from the eastern two-thirds of the United States, each year they will travel hundreds of miles to a specific site in Mexico, where they spend the winter. The monarchs west of the Rocky Mountains will fly to sites in California.
Now that they are back, the monarchs will spend the summer feeding and breeding, producing a first, second, and third generation of offspring. They’ll do this in natural habitats such as open fields and roadside ditches, and if you’re lucky, your garden.
There are a number of plants that adult butterflies, not just monarchs, will feed upon. They drink the nectar of zinnias, cosmos, honeysuckle, daisies, phlox, sunflowers, lantana, milkweeds, coneflowers, hibiscus, and many more. Butterflies aren’t so choosy about where they find their next lunch, but when it comes to laying their eggs, it’s quite another story. Butterflies are pretty specific about where they lay them, because the emerging caterpillars have a feeding preference. The Eastern tiger swallowtail will lay its eggs on the leaves of many different broadleaf trees and shrubs, but the zebra swallowtail prefers the leaves of papaw trees.
Monarchs are somewhat unique in that they will only lay their eggs on plants in the milkweed (Asclepias) family. These include not only the common milkweed (A. syriaca) that you know from roadsides, but also swamp milkweed (A. incarnata), scarlet milkweed (A. curassavica), and butterfly weed (A. tuberosa). There are over one hundred varieties of milkweed plants and many are perennials, while others are self-seeding annuals.
The milkweed, as indicated by its name, has long been considered a weed in the home garden, but with growing awareness of the disappearance of natural habitats and declining monarch populations, many gardeners no longer consder this plant, with its beautiful blooms, undesirable.
If you’ve ever been witness to a monarch caterpillar forming its chrysalis or a butterfly emerging from its chrysalis, you’ll understand why growing these plants in your garden can be very rewarding.