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Monarchs and Milkweed

August 6, 2018

A monarch butterfly sips nectar from a flower.

This week, I saw my first monarch butterfly of the season. It was flitting around some potted plants. One of which was a milkweed I brought with us from our previous home. The butterfly didn’t stay long enough for me to determine if it was male or female.

The male can be distinguished by two black spots on the hindwings. Nevertheless, I continued to hope it was a female and that she would grace our milkweed with some eggs. I understand this rarely happens in Colorado. Since I became accustomed to seeing monarch larvae on milkweed in Oklahoma, I will hold on to some hope.

The good news is we have a native monarch population here, but the not so good news is we are “not a major thoroughfare for migrating monarchs” according to the Butterfly Pavilion. If we experience any sightings of migration this would likely occur in early to mid-September.

Monarchs lay their eggs on milkweed, because it’s food for the butterfly’s larval stage.

Colorado State University Extension has an article about milkweed plants stating there are more than 100 species native to North America. The most common milkweed in our area is Asclepias speciosa. The plants are aptly named because the stems and leaves contain a milky toxin-filled sap. These chemicals are not palatable to most insects, but the monarch larvae dig them. They “metabolize the milkweed’s toxins and use them for their own defense.” This makes both the monarch butterfly and their larvae taste awful to predators: extension.colostate.edu/topic-areas/yard-garden/milkweeds-fascinating-plants-home-to-colorful-insects

To grow milkweed at home, you might try showy milkweed (Aslecpias speciosa) or butterfly weed (A. tuberosa), the latter of which will grow up to elevations of 7,000 feet. Butterfly weed blooms from summer through early fall with low moisture requirements. Great for our semi-arid environment. CSU Extension describes it as “umbrella-like clusters of flowers, narrow green leaves; attractive to butterflies.”

They also tell us it may be difficult to establish. This I know from personal experience, having seeded asclepias every year since we moved here: extension.colostate.edu/topic-areas/yard-garden/native-herbaceous-perennials-for-colorado-landscapes-7-242

Even though we typically don’t have high numbers of monarchs on the Front Range, we might want to think about helping out Mother Nature a little. The habitat for the overwintering monarchs in Mexico is declining, as well as the number of wild milkweed plants. Why not do what we can and plant some milkweed in our yards?

One last tidbit of information for you so you can correctly identify a monarch. Did you know there is a butterfly that looks nearly identical to a monarch? Colorado Front Range Butterflies shares that the viceroy has a “post median black line” across its hindwing “and a single row of white dots in the black marginal band”. You can see a photo here: coloradofrontrangebutterflies.com/viceroy

Kelley Rawlsky has an M.S. in horticulture and is the director of Bringing People and Plants Together, an organization dedicated to bringing horticulture education and therapy to the community. For more information: PeopleAndPlantsTogether @gmail.com or follow us on Facebook.

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