A few years ago, we received a wonderful surprise. An entire garden of milkweed planted itself in a grassy meadow near our house. We didn't buy them or plant them or tend them. They were a gift freely given. Knowing that milkweed flowers attract pollinators and that the plant is a host to Monarch caterpillars, we welcomed these plants. They bloom for several weeks in summer. The gorgeous purple blossoms are fragrant and irresistible to bees and butterflies and many other insect pollinators. Last year I was so curious to see who was visiting that I checked the milkweed three times a day. I saw tiny multicolored hoppers, little flies with long wings, ladybugs and Japanese beetles, several kinds of bees and butterflies, and the exquisite Great Spangled Fritillary. But I didn't observe a single Monarch in our milkweed garden and there were not nearly as many bees as we would expect.
Milkweed is essential for the Monarch population. It's the only plant where Monarch butterflies lay their eggs and it is the only one that the caterpillars will eat. Milkweed contains a natural chemical compound that makes the caterpillars poisonous to predators.
When the agri-tech giants like Dupont and Monsanto developed crops that are engineered to survive the use of weed-killers, farmers began to use more herbicides like Roundup. Environmentalists believe that the loss of Monarchs is caused by farmers and homeowners spraying herbicides on milkweed, which serves as a nursery, food source, and habitat for Monarchs.
In an effort to help, the Fish and Wildlife Service has partnered with the National Wildlife Federation and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation to plant milkweed seeds along the butterflies' migration corridor. Scientists are also considering other possible reasons for the decline in Monarchs, including habitat loss, disease, parasites, and climate change.
What can children do to help the Monarchs?
Children can plant milkweed seeds to help provide habitat and nectar for pollinators, especially bees and butterflies. Check out the Milkweed Seed Finder. Ask seed vendors if the milkweed seeds they sell are native to your area. Or collect your own seeds to ensure they are a native species. This is a wonderful project for children in fall (mid-October in our area).
Some nurseries are beginning to sell milkweed plants. You only need to buy a few plants. When the large milkweed seedpods burst open, revealing the intricately packed rows of brown seeds, there will be explosions of flying white silk carrying the seeds to new locations. If you wait until the seeds are ripe, children can shake them loose from the pods directly into your milkweed garden. A very messy and fun project!
Children can write letters to your state's Department of Transportation. Ask them to stop killing milkweed along highways and to start planting it instead.
Toni Albert, M.Ed., is an award-winning author of more than 40 books. Her lifelong love for nature, children, and books inspired her to commit her publishing business, Trickle Creek Books, to “teaching kids to care for the Earth.”