It is spring and my wife and I recently visited two very special places; one to see the our giant sequoias in the snowy white of winter and second to see the great poppy explosion along Dry Creek in the Sierra foothills east of Visalia. Just thought I would post a link to them here
If you wish to visit anywhere in this lovely part of our state check out the informative and enticing website Tulare County Treasures. Here you will find lots of leads and ideas on places to visit to make your spring or summer an especially memorable one. It looks to me that it will be a wildflower bonanza in the Sierra foothills this spring and early summer.
With Monarchs and Milkweeds - Part one was posted on February 6. If you have not already read this please scroll down.
Lesson No. 3: There is an organism named Ophryocystis elektroscirrha, which for obvious reasons is more commonly known as OE. The images above show one of my caterpillars and later its chrysalis infected by this parasite. For comparison to the right is an image of a healthy chrysalis. From my research I learned that emergent infected adult butterflies die off during their migration flight and thus do not carry and spread the spores of this disease to other butterflies in the over wintering colony. Thereby keeping this disease of our native monarchs in check. Secondly when you have a year round food source for monarchs you also have a year round site for OE which is transferred from butterfly wings when the butterfly is nectaring or laying eggs. OE spores are then consumed by the butterfly's larvae. OE is naturally kept in balance when native milkweeds die back. Not so with the perennially growing non-native milkweeds in warmer climates.
As I monitored my monarchs I noticed a majority weren't making it. Some not developing normally never emerged, others struggled to emerge, fell to the ground and died. These likely were stricken with OE. Another natural predator on many lepidoptera species is the tachinid fly. This fly oviposits its eggs into caterpillars where they consume their host then emerge and drop down on long silky threads to pupate in the ground. As shown below I observed these as well taking a toll on my monarch family.
Lesson No. 4: In reading some of the literature on this topic I learned that there is a bit of controversy regarding the benefits vs. the dangers of growing tropical milkweed. Because of severe habitat loss - not to mention use of herbicides in agriculture fields - monarch butterfly advocates believe that tropical milkweed plants in home gardens provide food and nectar which helps the monarch survive. Scientists however are more cautionary and advocate the use of local native milkweed species. Well, this makes perfect sense to me. But where can you find these native milkweeds which scientists are recommending we use? Certainly not in our big box store garden centers.
So I went searching online for native milkweeds at my favorite SoCal native plant nurseries. And I was a little disappointed. Las Pilitas Nursery in Escondido: '0'; Tree of Life Nursery in San Juan Capistrano: '0' - Well, actually they did not answer their phone and they do not have an online availability list; Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden in Claremont: '0'; Theodore Payne Foundation in Sun Valley ...'0'.
Monarch butterflies are so threatened, and yet very popular; so why are their host plants not more readily available? I kept up my search though and at last discovered a source, Moosa Creek Nursery in Valley Center. According to their inventory list they had Asclepias fascicularis and Asclepias speciosa, both terrific milkweed species. Searching further I found that Matillija Nursery way up north in Moorpark also had these same species in their inventory. I wonder if there were a higher demand for our native milkweeds would they be more easy to come by.
Lesson No. 5: If you want to do the right thing sometimes you can not take the easy path and to get native milkweed, this year anyway, I may have to take the long path down to Valley Center. But isn't it worth it? Actually what would really be best for monarch fans and the butterflies alike would be to have Home Depot adopt the little darlings as their mascot and promote the conservation of the monarchs through the sale and planting of native milkweed species. Home Depot corporate colors are orange and black, so what a great fit and what a PR coup!
Until then.......if you want to grow your own native milkweed plants you can find seed sources for several of these native species here at this excellent monarch website: Monarch Butterfly Garden
Here also are two excellent seed sources for California native seeds who also carry several milkweed species: Larner Seeds and Sierra Seed Supply.
Here are links to photos and information on some of our native milkweed species.
Narrowleaf or whorled milkweed
and possibly my favorite, and along with narrowleaf milkweed, the easiest to grow:
The Xerces Society is also the go to place for information on all things butterflies, check out their milkweed guide here.
Well now back now to my butterflies. Despite disease and parasites I did have three chrysalises which produced what appeared to be healthy normal butterflies. Here are some of my photos from this exciting event. All photos taken using my Nikon 100mm F2.8 macro.
So now I have a better sense of why folks get so attached and dedicated to these delightful creatures and I am especially grateful for this journey I have been allowed to take. Just wonderful this is and what wonders there can be in your own back yard.
I am excited to be posting my experiences, photos, and what I have learned about monarch butterflies and milkweeds. Since this is a native plant journal knowledgeable butterfly enthusiasts may react to this photo "oh no, not a tropical milkweed...bad!" Well, this is part of my story and part of what I have learned as I welcomed these beautiful and fascinating creatures into my urban landscape.
My experience begins in the summer of 2014 at our local Home Depot. In the garden section were a bench of lovely tropical milkweed plants; (Asclepias curassavica). They were in full bloom and with ripe pods shedding seeds, a healthy sample of which I deftly copped and stuffed into my pocket. I wondered then, and still do, is this shoplifting?
At home with my stash of seeds I sowed them in a flat and waited......... and waited. Slow to germinate I was finally rewarded that fall by a flush of seedlings. I potted them up into 2" rose pots and enjoyed watching them develop into healthy young plants. Once they were established and strong I kept about a dozen for my own use to plant in the long neglected planter bed which frames my back yard patio. That spring and summer of 2015 my milkweed plants grew quickly. However I also discovered that tropical milkweeds are very thirsty plants and in the heat of summer without every other day watering my plants would go into a despondent afternoon wilt.
Lesson No. 1: Asclepias currasavica is native to tropical Mexico, Central and South America. So how genetically appropriate are these plants for arid southern California? Should I have been wise not to sow seeds of a "tropical" plant for my dry garden? Of course. However, try as I may I find that I do not always apply my left brain logic when my right side passions for a pretty plant dominates my decision making. Over the summer and fall I managed to satisfy their water dependency from our water buckets in which we collect the shower and kitchen water when we are waiting for the hot water to flow. With this coddling by early fall we were enjoying the beauty of these charming plants as they put out dozens upon dozens of boisterous red and cheery yellow flower clusters.
And then she came.
26 October, 2015. Although when I pinched the seeds and planted the seedlings I was very well aware that milkweeds are an important source of food and nectar for monarch butterflies I was not really thinking about butterflies, especially so late in the season. But now, here she was, graceful and absolutely stunning in the autumnal California sunshine as she flitted back and forth amongst the flowers. I watched and photographed her for three or maybe it was four days, surprised that she made these daily returns, sipping nectar and laying eggs. I wondered where she rested and where she went at night. But then I also wondered...why is there a butterfly laying eggs in my garden with winter so close at hand?
Lesson No. 2: Western monarch butterflies feed on a variety of our native milkweed species including: showy milkweed (Asclepias speciosa), California milkweed (Asclepias californica), whorled milkweed (Asclepias fascicularis), antelope-horns milkweed (Asclepias asperula), and desert milkweed (Asclepias erosa). These native milkweeds die back with summer drought and the butterflies have naturally co-evolved to migrate and over-winter at several famous sites along the California coast from Santa Barbara County north. Once I started doing some research I learned that because it is not cold enough here in my part of southern California the non-native tropical milkweed grows year round. With this year round food source readily available in our gardens monarchs may not migrate. Is this a bad thing? I learned more later which I will write about in part 2 of my journey.
But back to my garden and some pretty photos. It was a bit of a challenge but I did manage to locate some of the tiny white eggs and this is when I had the idea that if I was lucky I might be able to follow this celebrated insect's complete life cycle here in my own backyard. I must say that from then on I was a bit obsessed; my chores and home projects postponed as I tended a new routine of daily and sometimes twice a day checking on and photographing the eggs and the newly emerged caterpillars. Here then is a slide presentation of the fun I had watching my monarch family as they developed, happily munching down my milkweed plants, and growing big and fat in the process. Were they really happy? Of course they were. Just look at them.
December 18th I discovered my first monarch chrysalis. I think I was weeding and just by chance I looked under my greenhouse window and found two, one chrysalis and another caterpillar just attaching. Over the next couple of weeks all of them I could find had navigated from the garden bed toward the house. There were abundant shrubs and small trees nearby but they preferred attaching on or near the house; on plastic door jams, wood boards, stucco, and a potted plant, but always up near the house. Were they navigating toward the south facing surface, or were they drawn by the warmth radiated by the house? Despite our predominantly sunny weather these guys were enduring a pretty cold time of year even enduring and surviving a freezing hail storm. I would head for that sunny warm south facing wall too.
I will be posting part 2 of my adventure with monarchs soon but I have chores to catch up on.
Michael Wall - Hemet, CA