Milkweed and Monarchs – A (Sometimes) Cautionary Tale


A thing California gardeners and nature-lovers are realizing—no matter how much they love monarch butterflies, the key is to keep them fed, by planting milkweed, but also keep them moving south, on their regular migrations. That may seem like a no-brainer, but with the best will in the world, some gardens actually work against this. This is because it’s become more and more apparent that not all milkweed is alike. Some, in fact, may be harmful to monarch migrations, even if not harmful to the butterflies themselves. So what’s a conscientious gardener or nature-lover to do?

Keep planting that milkweed—but if it’s for the butterflies, pay attention to where, and what kind. Here are a few tips.

Native Plants are Best

When in doubt, go with milkweed plants that are native to your region. Here’s why: some non-native plants are gorgeous, and the butterflies love them… but because they bloom year-round, or at different times of the year, they encourage the butterflies to stay instead of continuing their migration. Though it makes for a beautiful garden year-round, it does sort of defeat the purpose of planting the milkweed in the first place.

Milkweed plants native to a region already have their blooming and resting patterns in hand, and cease to bloom in time for the monarchs to take off to their next destination. And there is no reason to give up beauty or variety—out of about 2000 different species of milkweed, you’re sure to find the perfect ones for your garden, and for the migrating butterflies.

Why is migration important? Studies have found that non-migratory monarchs are more susceptible to diseases and parasites, and they wind up passing that susceptibility down to their offspring. The health of future generations of monarch butterflies depends on the strength of the earlier generations. Keep this in mind when designing your landscape to become a butterfly haven.

For Beauty and Variety, Tuck Milkweed in With Other Plants

Not only do some varieties of milkweed go dormant during winter or other seasons, but even the most lush can look skeletal after being gnawed on by voracious caterpillars. One way landscape designers and gardeners work to prevent this from detracting from the beauty of the garden is planting the milkweed amongst low-growing shrubs and/or native grasses. These help highlight the beauty of the plant during its heyday, as well as its bareness once its served its purpose.

If you’re unsure which species of milkweed is native to your area, you can look for databases online that will tell you, consult a local plant nursery, or ask your landscape architect for recommendations. It’s wonderful that there is such a high interest in saving the monarch butterfly—we just have to make sure we’re not doing more harm than good in the attempt.