Save the Monarch
According to the Monarch Conservation Science Partnership, Eastern Monarchs could become “quasi-extinct” within 20 years if we don’t work to restore their habitat and larval food source.
Photo by Dee Nash
For the first time in recent years, Monarchs saw an increase in numbers during the winter of 2015-2016.
Marilyn Stewart, owner of Wild Things Nursery located in southeastern Oklahoma, offers advice for bringing more Monarchs back to the state.
Although Stewart is passionate about native plants, she also suggests tropical milkweeds have a place in the Oklahoma garden for migrating butterflies.
When I was a child, Monarch butterflies filled the Oklahoma
skies every September as they migrated to their winter quarters
in the mountains of Mexico. However, according to the
Monarch Conservation Science Partnership, Eastern Monarchs
could become “quasi-extinct” within 20 years if we don’t work to restore
their habitat and larval food source.
Before you panic, there is good news. For the first time in recent years,
Monarchs saw an increase in numbers during the winter of 2015-2016.
Conservation agencies work tirelessly to save Monarchs with way stations
and education, but backyard gardeners can also help.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service partnered with the National Wildlife
Federation and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, along with other
state and federal agencies, as the Monarch Joint Venture to plant milkweed
especially along the I-35 corridor. Oklahoma is at the crossroads for both
bird and butterfly migration, and we can make a significant impact for all
pollinators and birds by planting the right food in our gardens.
“Oklahoma is a vital pathway for migrating Monarchs, and we should
celebrate it,” said Marilyn Stewart, owner of Wild Things Nursery located
in southeastern Oklahoma.
How can you help? It’s not as difficult as you might think.
“Plant milkweed, lots and lots of milkweed. Everyone can make a difference,”
Stewart said. “Don’t use chemicals, particularly systemics” [chemical
pesticides absorbed by plants]. When visiting a nursery, ask if systemic pesticides
have been used. If employees don’t know the answer, find a different
Although Stewart’s nursery doesn’t have a storefront, you can find her
selling pollinator-friendly plants—including various types of milkweed—at
festivals throughout the state.
“One of the first things people need to understand is the life cycle of the
butterfly. Each species of butterfly (and many moths and other pollinators)
are specific feeders. Butterflies will only lay eggs on their larval host plant,”
Stewart said. “If you move a Monarch caterpillar from milkweed to any other
kind of plant, it will die. Insects and native plants evolved together.”
Milkweeds are all part of the genus Asclepias. Which milkweed you should
grow depends upon the part of Oklahoma where you live.
On websites, gardeners are told not to plant tropical milkweed, especially
in Texas and other coastal states, where it can overwinter. Stewart is okay
with growing tropical milkweed in Oklahoma because the plant dies at our
first freeze. She stresses planting any type of milkweed wherever you can.
“One thing I would add is don’t overwinter the tropical as this can encourage
the spread of Ophryocystis elektroscirrha,” a parasite that infects both
Queen and Monarch butterflies.
“Most of our native milkweeds have gone dormant by late summer leaving
nowhere for the Monarch to lay eggs,” she said. “The main exception is
Cynanchum laeve, bluevine. This vine is cursed by many because it can twine
over everything and oddly, I usually find it in alleyways and untended small
town main street flowerbeds.”
Although Stewart is passionate about native plants, she also suggests tropical
milkweeds have a place in the Oklahoma garden for migrating
Several volunteer Monarch groups are devoted to conservation. Oklahoma
Friends of Monarchs and the Monarch Initiative of Tulsa are two groups that
share information and seeds with gardeners in our state. I’m a member of
both groups. With their guidance, I raised my first Monarch eggs to release
as full-grown butterflies last fall. It was a great feeling when I let them fly
away. I also planted a swathe of milkweed seeds in my garden.
With perseverance, perhaps we can help bring Monarchs back from
quasi-extinction one garden at a time. I’m willing to try. Are you?
More Information and Plant Sources: