Attracting Monarch Butterflies: Growing A Monarch Butterfly Garden

Attracting Monarch Butterflies: Growing A Monarch Butterfly Garden

By: Tonya Barnett, (Author of FRESHCUTKY)

Pollinatorsplay an essential role in the overall health and production of our gardens.Whether choosing to grow flower gardens, vegetables, or a combination of both, bees,butterflies,and other beneficial insects are integral to success. In recent years, thedecline in monarch butterfly populations has been of specific interest. Manygardeners ask how to attract monarch butterflies. Which plants do monarchbutterflies like?

With minimal planning, even small containers of floweringannuals or perennials can serve as a resource to this beautiful species ofbutterfly.

How to Attract Monarch Butterflies

Attracting monarch butterflies is much similar to attracting other pollinators to the garden. Including the right plants is key. Beneficial insects are attracted to flowers that provide a steady source ofnectar throughout the growing season. This is no exception in the creation of amonarch butterfly garden.

Adult monarch butterflies, which migrate towards Mexico,will need a consistent supply of nectar-rich blooms. This can be achieved byplanting a wide range of flowering plants in the monarch butterfly garden. Whatplants do monarchs like? Annual flowers such as zinnias,Mexican sunflower, and firecracker vines are all excellent options inattracting adult butterflies to the garden. But don’t stop there.

Generally, these butterflies prefer native plants, so you’llhave to research specific native wildflowers in your area. That being said,some of the more common plants for monarchs will include:

  • Milkweed
  • Butterfly weed
  • Asters
  • Coneflowers
  • Joe pye weed
  • Liatris
  • Penstemon
  • Bee balm
  • Goldenrod

Although watching adult butterflies flutter by can be quiterewarding, it is essential that growers also consider plants for monarchcaterpillars. Monarch butterflies are unique in that the female will only layeggs specifically on milkweed plants. Milkweed plants for monarch caterpillars will ensure thatthey are able to begin feeding as soon as they have emerged from the eggs. Asthe caterpillars consume the plant, they ingest a toxic latex substance towhich they are immune.

Since monarch caterpillars feed exclusively on milkweed,planting the correct varieties is imperative. This makes some researchnecessary when planting your monarch butterfly garden. Among the most commontypes of milkweed for butterflies are whorled milkweed, clasping milkweed,butterfly weed, and eastern swamp milkweed. Before planting any types of milkweed, it will be important to check local lists of noxious weedsand invasive species. While we do want to create habitat that supports thegrowth of monarch populations, it is also important to do so responsibly.

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Don't mistake goldenrod as the culprit for your allergies—the plants are often confused with ragweed, which blooms at the same time as goldenrod. Goldenrod plants depend on pollinators such as butterflies and bees to carry off its large, heavy grains of pollen, whereas the dusty pollen of ragweed is easily dispersed by the wind.

The flowers of ragweed aren't showy, compared to the vivid gold clusters of flowers produced by goldenrod plants. 'Fireworks' is one of the best-behaved goldenrod selections for well-manicured gardens.

Butterfly Milkweed Plant

Summer is almost here and that means pollinators, especially butterflies, pollinators are looking for nectar and possibly caterpillar host plants.

If you want to attract butterflies to your garden this year, make sure to add milkweed plants, especially Butterfly Milkweed, to your yard.

Butterfly Milkweed, also known as Asclepias tuberosa, are plants that have clusters of bright yellow, orange, and red flowers that seem to be a magnet for Butterflies.

Similar to Butterfly Milkweed is Swamp Milkweed and the Blood Flower Milkweed as they share several care requirements in common.

You can see in the photo below how bright and attractive Blood Flower Milkweed is!


In addition to planting native milkweed host plants for monarch caterpillars it is also important to plant nectar-rich plants for adult monarchs. Adult monarchs are dependent on nectar plants as a food source during spring and summer breeding, fall migrations, and during overwintering.

The Xerces Society, in partnership with the National Wildlife Federation and Monarch Joint Venture, developed regional monarch-specific nectar plant guides for the continental US. The plant species included in these nectar plant guides are based on monarch nectaring observations compiled from numerous sources, including published and technical reports, research datasets, and personal communications with monarch researchers, botanists, and other experts.

Use the map to identify the correct Monarch Nectar Plant List for your area, then click the corresponding image below to enlarge your regional guide:

  • Maritime Northwest
  • Inland Northwest
  • California Coast
  • California Inland
  • Great Basin
  • Rocky Mountains
  • Southwest
  • Northern Plains
  • Southern Plains
  • Midwest
  • Great Lakes
  • Southeast
  • Florida
  • Northeast
  • Mid-Atlantic

Plant a Diversity of Flowers

Butterflies are diverse creatures, and they require diverse sources of food. Large butterflies, like swallowtails and monarchs, prefer large, flat flowers that give them a good-sized landing area. Smaller butterflies, such as hairstreaks, coppers, and metalmarks, have shorter proboscises. They won't be able to drink from the deep nectaries of large flowers. When choosing flowers for your butterfly garden, try to pick a variety of flower shapes, colors, and sizes to meet the needs of different butterflies. Plants with clusters of smaller flowers (milkweeds, for example) will attract butterflies of all sizes.

Backyard gardens can help save the monarch butterfly

Local gardeners set an example with their certified wildlife habitat

–Local Congressman Salud Carbajal’s (D–Santa Barbara) recently announced support for two bills in the US House of Representatives to help save monarch butterflies and other pollinators, raised hope and stirred interest in saving the monarch. Backyard pollinator gardens can also play an important role in saving the declining monarch and pollinator populations. Adding the appropriate variety of native California milkweed to the garden is the best way to start.

Paso Robles gardeners Terry and Pam Barnes became monarch enthusiasts after visiting the Butterfly Grove in Pismo Beach a few years ago. “It was magical. We came home and planted butterfly bushes in our gardens. This year we planted our first crop of milkweed,” said Pam. Bees from the Barnes’ hives have disappeared and Pam said she didn’t see any monarchs in 2020. Along with creating the appropriate garden habitats for the butterflies, the pending legislation is, “what we should be doing to help the public realize nature in powerful,” said Pam. The Barnes’ Dresser Ranch property is a National Wildlife Federation Certified Wildlife Habitat.

One of Terry and Pam Barnes’ butterfly gardens waiting for the milkweed.

Monarch milkweed is critical to the survival of the monarch butterfly. Part of the depletion of the monarch butterfly population is attributed killing milkweed with herbicides, loss of wintering habitat, and climate change. Without the native milkweed varieties where the female monarch can lay her eggs and for the monarch caterpillar to eat, there are not enough new butterflies to keep the population vital.

Flower gardens are already pollinator gardens. Adding California native milkweed and other California native plants is an easy way to increase the variety of pollinators that visit your garden and create important habitat for the monarch. Other native California plants provide additional nutrition, shelter, and breeding habitats for pollinators such as the Anna’s Hummingbird that does not migrate, and native California bees.

Gardens that attract birds and insects are important said Brent Burchett, Executive Director of the San Luis Obispo County Farm Bureau. “I can tell you that Farm Bureau absolutely supports pollinator populations. The majority of our crops depend on pollinators. We know that when we spray for pests, we have to use specific management practices to safeguard bees, butterflies, and other pollinators.” Burchett also cautioned that milkweed can be toxic to livestock, but backyard gardens rarely graze livestock.

Danielle Bronson, State Park Interpreter for the Oceano Dunes District that includes the Pismo State Beach Monarch Butterfly Grove said, “Native milkweed needs to be planted in areas along the migration path a bit more inland from overwintering locations.” Planting milkweed in coastal areas within 10 miles of overwintering sites can encourage the monarchs to stay and feed rather than migrating and mating. “Planting milkweed near overwintering sites could have negative impacts for the population as a whole,” said Bronson. It’s also important to provide nectar plants during the time monarchs are returning to their overwintering sites.

Migration, caterpillars, and why native milkweed is important

A monarch caterpillar feeding on native California milkweed, Photo courtesy of California State Parks and Recreation.

The United States Forest Service reports that the monarch is the only butterfly known to make a two-direction migration as birds do. Monarchs cannot survive the cold winter of northern climates so they overwinter in warmer climates.

There are two groups of monarch butterflies those that live and migrate west of the Rocky Mountains and those doing the same east of the Rockies. Eastern monarchs overwinter in Mexico and migrate as far north as Canada in the warmer months.

The Western Monarch migrates into Canada and overwinters in California along the Pacific coast. Wintering monarchs roost in eucalyptus, Monterey pines, and Monterey cypresses. Once spring arrives the butterflies mature and begin to breed and reproduce along the northern migration path, laying eggs on the Monarch milkweed.

A monarch butterfly lives up to five weeks, spending its time searching for food mating, (several times in that short life) and laying eggs. The butterfly feeds on nectar including that from the monarch milkweed flowers.

  • The female monarch lays one egg at a time on a milkweed leaf, although she can lay hundreds of individual eggs. The eggs hatch three to five days later.
  • The monarch caterpillars, feeding exclusively on milkweed, grow for about two weeks.
  • Around two weeks after hatching, the caterpillar forms a chrysalis and begins turning into a butterfly.
  • After two weeks the butterflies emerge and continue the cycle of mating, laying eggs and migrating for four or five generations.
  • The final generation that returns to the winter groves has a longer life span of eight or more months. This is the generation that starts the new life cycle in the spring.

There are many varieties of monarch milkweed. The alkaloids from the plant gives caterpillars some defense against predators. Alkaloids from different varieties of milkweed on different migration paths may not provide the same level of protection.

Tropical milkweed (Asclepias curassavica) is a popular non-native variety sold in many nurseries. Unfortunately, this variety is host to Ophryocystis elektroscirrha (OE), a debilitating parasite that infects monarchs, causing difficulty emerging from their pupal cases, problems expanding their wings, and decreasing their chances of survival. Native California milkweed varieties do not host OE and the Western monarch caterpillar has no defense against it.

To discover which milkweed is native to your neighborhood, visit the Calscape website and enter your zip code. Calscape is managed by the California Native Plant Society (CNPS) to provide information about California native plants.

According to Calscape, the milkweed varieties for Paso Robles’ zip code 93446 are:

  • Narrow Leaf Milkweed (Asclepias fascicularis)
  • Kotolo Milkweed (Asclepias eriocarpa)
  • Woolly Milkweed (Asclepias vestita)

These California milkweeds are drought-tolerant perennials that grow from seeds and spread from rhizomes and die back in late fall. Established milkweed begins sprouting in late February and early March, starts flowering soon after the stalks reach a few feet tall, and continues to flower through the summer.

In the fall, milkweed produces pods that burst open exposing silky fibers holding the seeds. You can harvest the plentiful seeds to plant and share and let the birds and wind spread them.

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