Help the monarchs – plant milkweed

By Susan Johnson
Copy Editor

As spring approaches, gardeners look forward to warmer weather and entertain visions of beautiful flowers visited by butterflies – especially the familiar monarch. But this is a sight that is becoming less common, and for good reason. The monarch will only lay its eggs on one particular plant on which the caterpillars feed – the milkweed. Increased use of herbicides, droughts, clearing of vacant lots, loss of forest habitat where the butterflies winter – all these have taken their toll.

More people are taking an interest in native landscaping for their property, and some nurseries and organizations now offer seeds and/or plants to meet the demand. Since the monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus) is our state insect, Illinois residents have a special interest in protecting it. All the milkweed species (and most other native forbs) are used as nectar plants by mature butterflies.

Wild Ones Chapters

Rick Freiman, prairie plant sale coordinator of Wild Ones, Rock River Valley Chapter, sent us some information including an order form. They offer both Marsh (Red) milkweed and Butterfly weed. People are asked to order in multiples of four. You can mix and match flats and half-flats. All plants are in half-pint pots (2.5” square, 3.5” tall). The total number of plants in your order must fill flats or a half-flat. People are urged to order early, as supplies are limited. This year the deadline for ordering will be April 28, and plant pick-up days are Friday, May 16, and Saturday, May 17. For information on ordering, call (815) 871-7424 or go to or the website

Neil Diboll, owner of Prairie Nursery, Inc., of Westfield, Wis., says they have milkweed and many other native plants. In addition to the common milkweed, “Butterfly weed is utilized by the caterpillars. We have that available in plants and seeds. The reason we generally do not sell plants of the common milkweed is because it spreads by rhizomes, or underground roots… Butterfly weed is a close relative of the common milkweed, and it does not spread by rhizomes. A particularly good  plant for the caterpillars of monarchs is called Red milkweed. You will find this on our website. The genus name for all milkweeds is Asclepias. The common milkweed that grows … the species name is syriaca. The Latin name for the butterfly weed is A. tuberosa. Butterfly weeds grow best in well-drained, loose soil, like sandy soil. We have a strain of butterfly weed that will grow in clay as long as it’s not too wet.

“The Red milkweeds are the preferred food of the monarch caterpillar, although it uses all of the different members of the Asclepias genus… The Latin name for Red milkweed is A. incarnata. This is more of a wetland plant, but it does fine in the garden. It likes well-drained clay soil. It is very moisture-tolerant.

“We have one other milkweed – Sullivantii milkweed – that is A. sullivantii, that is similar to the common milkweed. It has somewhat larger flowers than the common variety. These are four of the most popular and widely-used milkweeds that people plant in their garden. There are many others, but these are not as popular or are quite rare or require specific habitats.”
Prairie Nursery, Inc. may be reached at (800) 476-9453, (608) 296-3679, or

Larry Scheunemann of Whitewater, Wis., is affiliated with the Kettle Moraine Chapter of Wild Ones. He and his wife, Emily, have given programs about the monarch butterflies. He recommends two sources for people to obtain seeds and/or plants.

Agrecol Corp. has a greenhouse at 1803 S. State Rd. 140, Janesville, Wis. Agrecol specializes in native seed, plants and restoration. Scheunemann said that people need to order a flat  of 32 plants. It might be convenient for several people to combine their order, and they can order online at Click on “Native Plants.” Or call the company at (608) 754-6594.

For seeds, Scheunemann recommends Prairie Moon Nursery, 32115 Prairie Lane, Winona, Minn. You can order online from them. Seeds are $2 per packet, which Scheumemann said is the most reasonable price he can find, as most grrowers charge considerably more. He says they have the best quality. Call them at (866) 417-8156 or (507) 452-1362, or go to or

Emily Scheumemann told us, “There’s been a definite decline in the number of  monarchs. Monarchs are a good indicator of what’s going on with all the pollinators. They have this incredible migration that people have been studying and documenting. Since 1995, they started to actually measure how many butterflies are wintering in Mexico.”  She said that researchers measure the circumference of the area, which is determined in hectares (approx. 2.714 acres). Monarch Watch shows graphs of how big the population is every year. She said 1995 was the first year for crops that were herbicide resistant. “Before that, farmers would spray herbicides on their corn, and it wouldn’t kill everything. What it didn’t kill, like common  milkweed, would still come up between the rows… we have documentation of the number of monarchs every winter. It goes up and down; the winter in 1996 was the record size of the population in Mexico; there were about 1 billion… That was the biggest population ever measured. That was near the beginning of using the herbicides-resistant plants. It  actually was very stimulating to farming. The farmers began to expand their fields because it was easy to have a successful field now because of these genetically-modified plants.

“In 2007 we had the Clean Air Act, and that legislation encouraged the farmers to grow even more of the genetically-modified plants and increase their acreage [which] took a lot of land out of the habitat of the monarchs. They estimate there were 1.435 mililion acres of corn and soybeans being grown in 1996. By 2007 we had 158 million… In 2013 there were 174 million acres of land that is no longer available as habitat for monarchs… Now they are taking out the hedgerows because there is such a push for corn for ethanol, and it is very successful. We also have a lot of  acreage being removed for CRP land (Conservation Reserve Program). The CRP reserved land is grassland or wetlands – land not being used for agriculture; 24 million acres of CRP land has reverted back to crops because of this new idea of growing GMOs. It is financially good for the farmers but not good for the monarchs. The biggest effect on the habitat for the monarchs is that they have lost a lot of plants because now the crops are like a desert to all pollinators. There is nothing for them– to lay eggs or have flowers to get nectar from. That is a wasteland for a pollinator.

“One hundred-fifty million acres of land has been lost because that is where soybeans and corn are being raised for various reasons. There are also 17 million acres lost because of development. That adds up to 167 million acres that used to be here in 1995 and is now not available – over 30% of the planting area that monarchs were using – 261,000 square miles. That is the same as the entire states of Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa and Illinois together, or the state of Texas.

“I think of monarchs as being like the canary in the mine. We can see them, and they are beautiful. We won’t notice if there are not as many carpenter bees or sulfur butterflies or beetles. They are not documented, but the monarch is. If we don’t see them, that should be a warning to us.”

Judith Kesser, also with the Kettle Moraine group, lives in the Milwaukee area. She said, “The Monarch Watch site has a Milkweed Market. They have collected seeds from all over the Eastern United States. People will collect seeds from their yards and trails. They clean [the seeds] and send them out. They have nurseries that will grow them throughout the winter, and in the spring you can order the plants. What they want to happen is that the seeds that were collected in Milwaukee County, people will get the plants back from the seeds they sent – from that area. They want the local genotypes to stay there.”  Kesser also recommends this link to Journey North for practical ways that ordinary people can help restore the monarch’s habitat:

Monarch Waystation Program offers a seed kit developed by Monarch Watch. A limited number of seed kits can be ordered for $16 each  and include nine varietes of nectar and monarch host plants as well as a detailed “Creating a Monarch Waystation” guide. The Monarch Watch website is
The Wild Ones website on monarchs is

Josh Sage, of the Boone County Conservation District in Belvidere, said, “Taking care of monarchs is very important, but so are all of our pollinators. Milkweed along with many other native wildflowers are a good way to help our struggling pollinators out. Replacing a small portion of a mowed turf grass yard with native wildflowers and grasses goes a long way.” He also recommended Prairie Moon Nursery for obtaining seeds.
The Prairie Preservation Society of Ogle County recommends  Genesis Nursery, 23200 Hurd Road, Tampico, IL  61283, telephone (815) 438-2220. Their website is This website is a wholesale supplier of native seeds and plants with more than 30 years’ experience. The website is frequently updated to the different areas as new information becomes available. The website information is available on DVD upon request to qualified individuals. The site does not conduct e-commerce.

An appeal for the monarchs

On Feb. 19, President Obama met with Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Mexican President Pena Nieto at the North American Leaders’ Summit in Toluca, Mexico. The purpose was to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Toluca is a short distance from the monarchs’ hibernation sites.
An appeal was sent to the three leaders from 150 prominent scientists and intellectuals, asking them to take urgent steps to stem the collapsing population of monarch butterflies that migrate annually across North America. So far, there is no word on what action, if any, the leaders will take.

From the Feb. 26-March 4, 2014 issue

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