How to Help Save the Monarch Butterfly

As their population declines by alarming numbers, monarch butterflies need your help. Planting milkweeds — the only host plant used by monarchs — provides much-needed habitat.
By Gary P. Nabhan
April/May 2014
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Monarchs are disappearing, as are milkweeds, their host plant.
Photo by Barbara DiBernard

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How can one not be enthralled by a fluttering flock of monarch butterflies landing in a hedgerow full of flowering milkweeds nestled on the edge of a farm or garden? But these butterflies’ annual migration — one of the greatest spectacles in nature — has become an endangered phenomenon.

The number of monarchs reaching their overwintering grounds high in the oyamel fir forests of central Mexico has hit a record low. One of several factors that has contributed to the monarch’s steep, decade-long population plummet is the loss of milkweeds — the monarch’s host plant — as a result of herbicides used on fields of genetically modified crops. Some scientists suspect the largest contributor to the milkweed die-off is the herbicide glyphosate (the active ingredient in Monsanto’s Roundup brand, among other products). This problem, along with drought and habitat lost to farmland, is a perfect storm of natural and human-caused factors that has spurred the loss of many milkweed species, numerous monarch butterflies, and an estimated 130 other insects common to milkweed patches.

Milkweeds are the only host plants monarchs use. Without milkweeds, there are no monarchs — and throughout Midwestern farmscapes, milkweeds declined by 58 percent from 1999 to 2010. 

Fortunately, some farmers and gardeners have found ways to manage weeds and pests — as well as maintain soil tilth and pollinator abundance — without using herbicides, or by employing minimal, targeted use of weedkillers.

Beginning with the 2014 spring equinox and continuing through National Pollinator Week in June, thousands of people will be participating in events to get Moving for Monarchs (M4M). The M4M initiative will also host an event at the National Mall in Washington, D.C., in June. Colleges and garden clubs will advocate for the recovery of monarchs and will also host workshops on how to grow milkweed. A valuable perk of monarch protection is that schoolchildren across North America will be able to continue to study and enjoy the stunning monarch migration.

Make Way for Monarchs is a milkweed-butterfly recovery alliance whose goals include restoring viable milkweed populations, and ramping up public and private partnerships that work to restore populations of North American milkweeds.

You can join in: Grow native milkweeds in your garden (you can collect the fluffy seeds from roadsides in fall), count caterpillars on milkweeds in or near your yard, record monarch migration dates, and turn your data into Monarch Watch.

If you are looking for a source for milkweed seed, Terroir Seeds sells two types. Terroir’s Spider Milkweed variety is being offered in partnership with the Xerces Society and Painted Lady Vineyard, and the company’s Hummingbird and Butterfly Mix also contains milkweed seed. Try out our Seed and Plant Finder to locate additional sources. — MOTHER

Post a comment below.


5/28/2014 12:02:01 PM
Unfortunately, milkweed is very poisonous to horses so be advised before you pant if you have horses.

4/10/2014 3:25:00 PM
Hi, OzarkNana. We just added a comment to the bottom of the article directing you to some seed sources. Hope this helps! —Shelley, Gardening Editor

4/5/2014 8:49:17 PM
I have seed that I saved from last year's plants. If Ozarknana wants to send me a self-addressed stamped envelope, I will send her some seed. Respond to this and we will figure it out.

4/4/2014 9:30:07 AM
This is all well and good but Winter is over and there are no "seed" to gather to plant. I'm surprised the M4M organization isn't providing people with seed that want to help. At this point I don't know what to do. I would love to plant milkweeds in my garden but don't have seed!

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