Among butterflies, the monarch is the crown royal. With wings resembling orange and black stained-glass windows, it hovers lazily in our summer gardens. Come fall, it prepares for a remarkable journey not performed by any other insect on earth.
Our goal one spring was to create a certified monarch way station, a place of refuge for this dwindling insect species. This type of way station is simply a botanical butterfly inn designed to provide food, drink, rest and lodging.
Monarchs use way stations during their seasonal fall journey south from eastern North America to the Transvolcanic Range of central Mexico, where they overwinter in high-elevation oyamel fir (Abies religiosa) forests. Similarly, the butterflies frequent the way stations when they come north in spring.
Monarch Watch is a conservation program based at the University of Kansas. This program encourages homeowners, among others, to plant butterfly gardens to offset habitat loss caused by development and urban sprawl.
"This migration is worth saving," says Dr. Chip Taylor, biologist and director of the program. "To save it, we have to pay attention to the habitat needs of this butterfly."
It doesn’t take a lot of space to create a mini-habitat for butterflies. Even a window box of annuals will suffice. An official monarch way station is more exacting. We created our way station in an abandoned vegetable garden at our farm in the Gatineau Hills, situated in west Quebec, Canada. Surrounded by meadows and forests, and being pesticide and herbicide free, it’s an ideal location. Pesticides kill the monarch caterpillars and adults. Herbicides kill the plants on which they rely for food and lodging. Butterfly way stations must be built without the use of chemicals. As some North American cities move toward banning pesticides and other chemicals from home gardens, the prospects for safe butterfly havens increase.
Planning a way station involves specific research to find a safe location with plants suitable for your growing conditions.
Here are some basic tips:
Choose an Appropriate Site
Butterflies are cold-blooded insects. They need lots of sunshine to gather the energy needed to fly. Many butterfly plants prefer sun to shade as well. According to Monarch Watch, monarch habitats need at least six hours of light a day.
A sheltered area is ideal. Wind currents make it harder for butterflies to fly, mate and lay eggs. A windbreak of evergreens can protect the garden from prevailing winds. The density of the plants can also provide shelter.
In terms of size, there is no minimum area requirement needed to certify your habitat; however, a truly effective Monarch waystation is at least 100 square feet. Soil should be relatively light and low in clay, as good drainage is needed to avoid root rot.
The Importance of Milkweed
Milkweed is the host plant for the monarchs. Without it, they can’t survive. No other plant replaces it. Monarch larvae feed exclusively on milkweed leaves. A naturally occurring steroid in the milkweed, called cardenolide, remains in their bodies even after the adult monarchs emerge from their pupae. The substance is toxic for birds and other predators. Monarchs’ bright colors act as a warning sign to their enemies of their toxicity.
The scientific name for milkweed is Asclepias, named after Asklepias, the Greek god of medicine. There are many kinds of North American milkweeds. On the east coast, the main plant on which the monarchs feed is the common milkweed (A. syriaca). In western regions, the showy milkweed (A. speciosa) is the main host plant.
Milkweed used to be a common, sometimes invasive, plant. Its seedpods crack in the fall to send off hundreds of seeds in the wind, each attached to its own silky parachute. Today, milkweed sources are declining due to development and roadside management involving regular mowing and use of herbicides. More recently, the introduction of genetically modified plants resistant to herbicide spraying has contributed to the loss of natural plants, including milkweed.
A monarch way station should have at least 10 milkweed plants of two or more species. Possibilities include butterfly weed (A. tuberosa); common milkweed; showy milkweed; swamp milkweed (A. incarnata subsp. incarnata and A. incarnata subsp. pulchra); tropical milkweed (A. curassavica) and other milkweed varieties. Some are available at home-gardening stores or can be started as seed. Check with a local master gardener or a home-gardening expert to determine which plants are best suited for your zone.
Select Nectar Plants
A certified way station should contain several annual, biennial or perennial plants that provide the nectar that monarchs need throughout their breeding season and their long migration. Ideally, these plants are selected to ensure that there are continuous blooms throughout the summer season. Both cultivated and wild perennials are good nectar sources.
Cultivated perennials include asters, bee balm (Monarda spp.), catnip (Nepeta cataria); daisy (Bellis perennis), purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea) and sedum.
Among the wild perennials are black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta), blazing star (Liatris spp.), dandelion (Taraxicum officinale), goldenrod (Solidago spp.), Joe Pye weed (Eupatorium spp.), thistle (Cirsium spp.), wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa) and yarrow (Achillea spp.).
Annuals include French marigold (Tagetes patula), verbena, zinnias, impatiens, cosmos, alyssum (Lobularia maritima), Mexican sunflower (Tithonia spp.), ironweed (Vernonia altissima) and candytuft (Iberis spp.).
Some shrubs also attract monarchs, such as azalea (Rhododendron spp.), butterfly bush (Buddleja spp.), lilac (Syringa spp.), sumac (Rhus spp.), spirea and viburnum.
Make a Sustainable Plan
Once your garden is planted, a sustainable plan is required to ensure that your way station will be there for monarchs in the years ahead. You will need to plan how you’ll weed your garden, deadhead, and control insects such as aphids and beetles that feed on milkweed. A sound plan includes mulching and watering. It will need to be environmentally friendly, without the use of any chemical products.
Additional features for a butterfly garden include flat rocks and sand on which the butterflies can bask in the sun to gather energy. Open compost piles with lots of coffee and tea grounds provide much-needed minerals. Small puddles of water act as drinking pools.
Certify Your Garden
Finally, take the time to fill in the paperwork required to create a monarch way station. The program depends on it. The website is www.monarchwatch.org.
Once you receive your monarch way station identification, you’ll be able to submit photos of your way station to be included in the online registry. You will even be eligible to post an official weatherproof monarch way station sign to hang at the entrance to your garden.
Our own garden was completed in late spring 2009 and was officially certified as a Monarch Waystation site (#3206) in July of that year. From Mexico, it will take several generations of monarchs to make their long journey to our garden. As hospitable innkeepers, we’ll be eagerly watching and waiting for their winged arrival.
Text and photos by Julianne Labreche
Julianne Labreche is a freelance writer and garden enthusiast who volunteers as a Master Gardener in Ottawa-Carleton.