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Episode 22 – How to Make Your Garden Benefit Monarch Butterflies

Ground Breaking Banter - Rick

Stacey and Rick discuss the annual migration of North America’s monarch butterfly.The monarch makes a two-way migration as birds do. The monarchs know when it is time to travel south for the winter. Some fly as far as 3,000 miles to reach their winter home! Monarchs in Eastern North America have a second home in the Sierra Madre Mountains of Mexico. Monarchs living west of the Rocky Mountain range in North America overwinter in California along the Pacific coast near Santa Cruz and San Diego. The microclimatic conditions are very similar to that in central Mexico. Monarchs roost in eucalyptus, Monterey pines, and Monterey cypresses in California. Monarchs in Western North America overwinter in California, places like Pacific Grove CA “Butterfly Town USA” Monterey CA or San Luis Obispo.

The number of hectares (About 2.47 acres make up one hectare, so an acre is only about 40% of the size of a hectare) that monarchs cover when overwintering in Mexico is a good gauge to watch trending for their population size. Think about the trend over five years, or 10 years or 20 years. The trend has been for reduced populations. That long-term trend is the reason the monarch was listed as endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) in 2022.

Stacey and Rick discuss common Milkweed (Asclepias syriacus) and Butterfly-weed (Asclepias tuberosa) There are a number of key differences between butterfly weed and milkweed. Most common milkweed plants have pink or purple flowers, while butterfly weed plants have orange, yellow, or red flowers. When it comes to attracting pollinators, both of these plants do a good job, but Rick suggests that the common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) is better for the caterpillar stage than butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa) for monarch butterfly reproduction. Both belong to the Asclepias or milkweed genus. Stacey very much disagrees and shares examples of butterfly weed in her yard as just as valuable for the caterpillar stage. We learned something new.

Word of the day: They arrive in October after their journey from the USA, and cluster together in a near hibernation-like state known as (Word of the day): torpor a state of lowered physiological activity typically characterized by reduced metabolism, heart rate, respiration, and body temperature that occurs in varying degrees especially in hibernation.
Rick suggests following the website https://journeynorth.org/

Excerpt: Journeynorth.org (from last week) “There is no change in the forecast. Temperatures will remain higher than usual for this time of year. This weather pattern appears to be widespread across México. It is now reaching the fir forests located 10,000 feet in elevation. Usually, temperatures under their canopy are cooler, just right for overwintering monarchs. Reported temperatures are the warmest and driest we have experienced during these winter months. February and March could still bring winter effects, as has occurred in the past. We are all waiting to see if the weather changes.”

Monarch butterflies have four life stages: egg, larva (caterpillar), pupa (chrysalis) and butterfly. Adult monarch butterflies typically have four generations each season. The ones most visible in late summer and early fall are the fourth generation, which are the ones that will migrate thousands of miles to Mexico, they are biologically different from previous generations. They live longer and do not mate or lay eggs until the following spring after they fly north and reach areas with milkweed.

Rick suggests the website: monarchwatch.org for milkweed seed.

Milkweed seed was used during World War II to fill life vests and save sailors and airmen. Rick shares an excerpt from one of his books: Late in the growing season along the Lake Michigan shoreline, common milkweed Asclepias syriaca is distributing its seed. The seed pods jettison their flat brown seeds attached to tufts of silky fibers or floss. The pods split open along a central seam and then like parachutes are carried aloft by the wind. Milkweed is named for its characteristic milky sap or latex. Some prefer to call it silkweed due to the proliferation of the “seed floss” distributed when the pods crack open. It’s an ingenious and natural propagation insurance for the distribution and continuation of the species much to the merriment of the Monarch butterfly. During World War II Dr. Boris Berkman, a Chicago physician and inventor had other ideas than a natural distribution. He wanted them harvested and used for the war effort. The milkweed long considered by many a nuisance weed, in his mind would come to the rescue of aviators and sailors. For years, kapok would be used as the typical filler for floatation devices. The tree Ceiba pentandra produces a light and strong fiber known as kapok and it was used to fill mattresses, pillows and yes life preservers. Kapok was cultivated in the rainforests of Asia and Indonesia (Dutch East Indies). With the world at war including the Pacific the supply of this important filler was cut off. A replacement material was needed to spare the downed pilot or overboard sailor and Berkman had the solution. The common milkweed. Not only was milkweed plentiful in North America it could arguably do a better job than kapok as filler in life vests. Tests conducted by the U.S. Navy showed that a little over a pound of milkweed floss could keep a sailor floating in the water for hours.

Great plants for Monarch butterflies:

  • Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca)
  • Swamp Milkweed
  • Butterfly-weed (Asclepias tuberosa)
  • Buddleia
  • Caryopteris
  • Clethra
  • Itea
  • Coneflower/echinacea (Stacey suggests the single flower types over doubles, which replace pollen and nectar-bearing parts with petals)
  • Verbena
  • Zinnias
  • Rudbeckia
  • Helianthus and Heliopsis
  • Joe Pye Weed Eupatorium
  • Asters
  • Monarda
  • Liatris

Why: Well, because butterflies! Also, ‘Miss Molly’ butterfly bush is my personal favorite of all of the varieties that we offer in Proven Winners ColorChoice Shrubs. And that’s because of its color. Simply put, there’s no other butterfly bush that blooms in a color that even comes close to its amazing near-red flowers. You really have to see them to believe them! Add in its elegant habit and convenient size – it reaches just 4-5’ tall and wide – and the fact that it’s seedless and non-invasive, and you’ve got the total package. In our trial gardens, it becomes positively covered in butterflies all summer long, they absolutely love it.

These days, though, you can’t bring up butterfly bush without getting a lot of pushback, so I want to address that right off the bat. Many people have begun demonizing butterfly bush because it is an invasive plant in some areas. That may be news to many of  you who have struggled to get one to grow in the first place, but conventional butterfly bushes have actually been banned in Oregon and Washington State because they were causing such severe issues. The Lo & Behold and the “Miss” series of butterfly bushes from Proven Winners ColorChoice solves that issue – they do not set seed, so are approved for sale in Oregon and Washington, but must be sold under the name “summer lilac” so it’s clear that they are different than butterfly bush.

That’s not the only complaint that people have about butterfly bushes, though. Many also believe that they are not good for butterflies since they are not native to North America. That is true, of course, but butterflies will not feed at a butterfly bush at the expense of native plants – they browse a wide assortment of different types of flowers as they feed through the day. Along with this, many say that you shouldn’t plant butterfly bushes because they don’t sustain larvae, or caterpillars. And this is also true – the flowers are only eaten by adults, and the foliage does not sustain anything like, say, milkweed or oaks do. But ultimately, planting a butterfly bush will attract and feed butterflies but should not be seen as the only thing you need to plant to have a pollinator-friendly garden. To do that, you need of course to also plant “host plants” – species that are important to the development of caterpillars, and of course, tolerate their feeding on your plants.

We see planting a butterfly bush as a “not by bread alone” approach to your garden: it’s good, but if you are serious about supporting pollinators and butterflies, it’s only part of the total approach. So, we say, if you love the color, non-stop summer blooms, and frequent visits from butterflies, and of course, have the right conditions to grow them, by all means, plant a butterfly bush. Just don’t make it the only thing you do to support these important and beautiful members of our ecosystem.

Who: ‘Miss Molly’ is one of four varieties in the “Miss” series of seedless, non-invasive butterfly bushes. They all have that same elegant habit and useful size, but ‘Miss Molly’ definitely wins when it comes to flower color. It is the invention of Dr. Denny Werner from North Carolina State University. When Dr. Werner started seeing the early signs pointing to an eventual ban on Buddleia, he made it his mission to apply his skills and know-how to developing seedless butterfly bushes that could keep one of his favorite flowering shrubs a viable part of North American gardens. He first developed the Lo & Behold series, which is not only non-invasive but also very dwarf and space-saving. Shortly after, the first of the “Miss” series, ‘Miss Ruby’, followed. It was his best red at the time, hence the name, but ‘Miss Molly’ came along soon after and usurped it.

Dr. Werner developed these butterfly bushes through a process known as “wide crossing”: instead of taking two different varieties of Buddleia davidii, the most popular species, he crossed that species with a variety of different Buddleia species. This introduces the possibility that chromosomes cannot pair off properly to create a seed, and that’s what happened in these cases.

How to grow: There are two key factors for success with butterfly bush: sun and well-drained soil. You want at least six hours of bright sun each day, and the soil absolutely, positively must be well-drained, and never wet or soggy for any period of time. Wet soils will kill butterfly bush faster than you can say “buddleia,” so it’s surprising that the species can be so aggressive when it is so incredibly sensitive to these conditions. But suffice it to say, if you do want to kill any butterfly bush, overwater it, cover it with landscape fabric, put a thick layer of mulch…any of those will definitely do the trick.

Butterfly bush is another late-to-emerge-in-spring shrub, so if it’s not showing signs of life when other things start to wake up, don’t panic. That’s totally normal! I have seen butterfly bush not show signs of life until as late as early June but then go on to become fully grown-in and blooming within a few weeks. You will want to wait until you do see those signs of life before doing any cutting back or pruning. Pruning too early could remove live wood that the plant needs for recovery, particularly if you live in a colder climate or had an unusually harsh winter.

But speaking of pruning, you definitely should prune butterfly bush every year. If you do not, they become very tall and awkward-looking, and only flower at the tips of the branches instead of all over the plant like you (and the butterflies!) want. You should cut them back quite hard – just a few inches from the ground is what we do in our trial gardens. If you are nervous about doing this, don’t be – you can just wait until the new growth begins to emerge, effectively letting the plant tell you where it should be pruned.

Gardening Mail Bag - Stacey

Michelle asks: “Would you “bee” willing to ask Don Snoeyink what he thinks about bees eating mushrooms and the research between mycelium and colony collapse prevention?”

The context for Michelle’s great question is this report from Nature.com: “Waves of highly infectious viruses sweeping through global honey bee populations have contributed to recent declines in honey bee health. Bees have been observed foraging on mushroom mycelium, suggesting that they may be deriving medicinal or nutritional value from fungi. Fungi are known to produce a wide array of chemicals with antimicrobial activity, including compounds active against bacteria, other fungi, or viruses. We tested extracts from the mycelium of multiple polypore fungal species known to have antiviral properties. Extracts from amadou (Fomes) and reishi (Ganoderma) fungi reduced the levels of honey bee deformed wing virus (DWV) and Lake Sinai virus (LSV) in a dose-dependent manner. In feld trials, colonies fed Ganoderma resinaceum extract exhibited a 79-fold reduction in DWV and a 45,000-fold reduction in LSV compared to control colonies. These findings indicate honey bees may gain health benefits from fungi and their antimicrobial compounds.” Wow!

We asked last week’s guest, Don Snoeyink, for his response:You have got to love this! And why would we be surprised by this news? It is amazing, phenomenal, and it makes me laugh. I do not laugh with disdain, but in awe. The ways nature works together are remarkable. Symbiosis is the word here; where two different living organisms, living in close physical association, live to the advantage of BOTH. Can we learn from that? I sure can. This is one of the types of stories that thrills me because it shows me/us that nature is so much bigger than we might think. And as I often say, ‘The deeper you go into nature, the more amazing it is.'”

Leesa writes: I have been renovating a very small yard in Hilliard (a suburb of Columbus) Ohio – zone 6.  Last year I added a planting bed in the corner of the backyard and would like to plant a shade tree.  I was wondering if I can plant a multi-branch river birch tree and underplant with Arctic Fire dogwood? The pictured below show the area (winter version) with some dimensions, 8′ from the corner (it’s a triangle and has about 5′ center).

Thanks for the photos, Leesa – it’s always so much easier to give advice when we can see the planting area. I feel that this is an either/or situation, though – that bed is not large enough for both the river birch and Arctic Fire Red dogwood. The birch gets quite large, for one, and second, it’s very, very competitive for water, and I think that would make it very difficult for the dogwoods to get established. So my advice is to plant one or the other – one river birch, or perhaps three dogwoods. If you opt for the river birch, you can still underplant it if you wish  – just opt for more shallow-rooted perennials, like coral bells, variegated Solomon’s seal, hosta, or really, any ground cover perennial you like. 

Dave emailed, saying that he keeps hearing about “dormant pruning” and he’s wondering if he should prune his arborvitae now.

Stacey and Rick agree: evergreens are generally best pruned in spring, after their new growth has emerged but before it hardens off (i.e, gets stiff and darker green). The benefits of dormant pruning are mostly that you can easily see the framework of the tree or shrub so you can make more informed decisions on where to prune, though some trees, like birch and oak, are just always best pruned dormant. So there’s no real benefit to pruning arborvitae during dormancy, plus, making a bunch of cuts on evergreen foliage can also cause a lot of water loss, which leads to browning foliage and can harm the plant’s health. So put this on your gardening calendar for, say, mid-late May.

Branching News - Rick

  • Check out this viral picture of a dog that wants out of the house and into the yard! It was a “ruff day:” stunned locals could barely believe their eyes after a dog chewed through a front door in the village of Kelty Fife, Scotland. A photo of the pooch popping its head out the hole went viral as the pet was captured watching passers-by. The front door of the home had been completely chewed through, with the hole stretching the size of what would have been a letterbox. The dog also appeared to be trying to make a bigger hole in its mission to escape by ripping out the letter box and then chewing through the door. Rick says that dogs should forget about doors and stick to reconstruction of things they’re good at….roofing!

    The freedom-hunting pet was spotted with its head hanging out the impressive gap it had made in the entryway. And with a front paw forced through the hole too, it seemed as if the dog was ready for a breakout. The image has shocked so many people on social media that some didn’t believe it was real. But in fact, many could testify that the dog’s endeavours were legitimate, saying they had actually passed the scene. Rick says he was “renegotiating the terms of his leash.” Check it out for yourself

  • As the prices of onions have soared in recent months in the Philippines, a Filipino bride chose practicality over traditional aesthetics by walking down the aisle with a bouquet of onions! Rick says they probably exchanged “onion rings” and allegedly the cake was in “tears.”
  • The Potato is America’s favorite veggie! Really? And brussel sprouts, kale, beets and squash did not make the list. Take a look at these survey results.
  • Students want to go green and “re-wild” and naturalize their campus. Check out this website.
  • Uninvited tree-choppings on residential properties a social media “challenge” prank? 
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