Select Page

Catching Up: First Monarch in the July Garden

Monarch season is starting very slowly. The first Monarch I noticed, perched on a stockade fence, in our Lake Forest garden visited last week. Alas, I had no camera in hand. Yesterday morning, however, this mistah buttafly flitted onto the Allium ‘Summer Beauty’ (a must-have plant, durable as hell), completely ignoring the nearby, wait for it…Butterfly Weed [Asclepias tuberosa].  I haven’t seen any Monarchs at all at our farm in Richmond, about an hour northwest of Lake Forest. Hopefully it’s still early, but the Milkweed is going to seed already so…


Right nearby, a Red Admiral was enjoying the Allium as well. These are common “lady butterflies” which do take nectar but are more partial to eating overripe fruit, sap, and yes, old meat and poo-poo. (Butterflies may look beautiful, but the back story can be really terrible.) And, like some males of our species, it is said that the “males are territorial, especially in the late afternoon and evening. They select a perch where the sun shines and dart out at passing objects as they search for females.” Bring it on, fellas!#


Got Milkweed?

If you are reading this, doubtless you know the Golden Rule of Biodiversity: plant milkweed. Please. No, I take back the “please”. Just do it. Even if you garden on only a balcony, grow some milkweed in a clay pot. However you manage it (ie “float” its diaphanous seed in the parkway or the alley), be a guerrilla biodiversifier and…plant milkweed.

You know why I am pushy about this plant: because its leaves are the only thing that Monarch butterflies can eat. As noted entomologist Doug Tallamy says, “To have butterflies, we need to make butterflies. To make butterflies, you must use a native species that serve as a host for butterfly larvae [Ed: that’s a caterpillar] as well as a supply of nectar for adult butterflies. Butterflies do not lay their eggs on any old plant. They lay their eggs only on the plant species to which their larvae are adapted”. And that means…Milkweed.

You even have choices when it comes to which milkweed, but three species are commonly available in garden centers or via seed packets:

The Common milkweed [Asclepias syriaca], which has husky leaves, roots that grow to China, and a handsome dusty rose globe of a flower. [If you are worried about this being too aggressive, look for its cousin, Sullivant’s milkweed, which grows slowly, albeit by rhizomes, which means its good in tough-to-grow-anything-else spots. Nonetheless, I like the Common milkweed in gardens–it provides a tall, solid, almost tropical contrast although you might have to tie it up with a strong shoelace.]



Common Milkweed

The Butterfly weed [Asclepias tuberosa], which has flowers the extravagant color of a Navel orange, does well in dry, “crappy” soils, and makes a great bouquet;

1-P1060073 butterfly weed



The Red or Swamp milkweed [Asclepias incarnata] has a two-toned pink flower, narrow leaves, and a pleasing way of gracing a moist spot–especially nice en masse if you have a lake edge to landscape.

Swamp milkweed [Asclepias incarnata]

Swamp milkweed [Asclepias incarnata]

And if Monarch’s weren’t good enough for you, at least 11 other species of butterflies and moths reproduce on milkweed as well. Goldfinches eat the insects that get trapped in the flowers and also use milkweed seed “down” for nesting material, and you may see (good) beetles on the plants as well. Biodiversity can be easy if you try!

Milkweed pods and the seeds that float on the air...

Milkweed pods and the seeds that float on the air…

Okay, I’ll be nice again. PLEASE plant milkweed someplace on your property. Or your balcony. And now I won’t be nice: if you work for a municipality, we gardeners expect to see milkweed growing everywhere around town. It’s the law.#