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