How to Find Native Milkweed for Monarch Butterflies

How to Find Native Milkweed for Monarch Butterflies

Butterfly lovers, take a breath. I Known It's officially spring and we're all knocking on nursery doors, eager to plant some native California milkweed to help the endangered western monarch butterfly stay afloat ever since, YesMilkweed is the only thing its caterpillars will eat and non-native varieties seem to hasten its demise.

But here's the thing: Native milkweeds are still slowly coming back to life.

said Patty Ross, retail director at Tree of Life Nursery in San Juan Capistrano, one of Southern California's leading native plant growers. “We've tried growing native milkweed in different conditions and it's the same. You can't change what a plant wants: a summer flower that goes dormant in the middle of winter.

This means that plants large enough to sell won't be available in most Southern California nurseries until mid-April — earlier if we get a few really warm weeks or later if temperatures stay cool. Due to the high demand this year a lot Of pre-orders, nursery managers warn that it may be May or even early summer before they have more native milkweed in stock.

“All of our crop is already booked for April — we're talking hundreds of plants — and we're already booking our crop for May,” said Sue Krause, founder and consultant of Mozza Creek Nursery, a wholesale grower of native plants in California. In Valley Center near San Diego.

Narrow-leaved milkweed (Asclepia fasciculata)

(Eric Hunt)

El Nativo Growers, a wholesale native plant grower in Azusa that is not open to the public, said it has seen such high demand for native milkweed “that we've been selling them (to retailers) very, very early in the season, even before the plants are out of condition.” “Silence.” Co-owner James Campbell. “We are trying to increase production.”

Some people were so excited that they were buying pots of the narrow-leaved dormant milkweed, also known as… Asclepia fasciculata, at the Santa Barbara Botanical Gardens Arboretum, says director Matt Straka. “It looks like just dirt and maybe a twig, and sometimes there's not even a twig, but if you take the plant out of the pot and you see white roots along the edge of the soil, that's a good sign that it's alive but in a dormant stage,” Straka said.

All this demand is good news, right? Because people are really trying to help migrating western monarchs whose numbers fell to fewer than 2,000 during last year's Thanksgiving weekend count, compared to the millions who used to winter on the California coast about 30 years ago.

Since this disastrous toll, the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation has issued a “Call to Action,” outlining ways the public can help. Two bills were introduced in Congress in mid-March to help fund monarch habitat restoration and conservation.

Feel free to skip to the end, where we've listed eight places where you can purchase native Southern California milkweed along with other flowering native plants that provide food for adult monarchs. Due to demand, you may have to place a pre-order at these locations or with your local nursery (push them hard if they don't already sell local milkweed). And remember to be patient, because many nurseries They are understaffed, besieged by phone calls and orders, and trying to deal with an evolving pandemic like the rest of us.

But if you're a plant lover like me, let's talk about how complex the western monarch situation is and why something as seemingly simple as milkweed is such a difficult problem.

When things become out of balance in the natural world, the “solutions” are often more complex than we have the time—or inclination—to process, and they are also fluid. Researchers are slowly obtaining new data and developing new theories, but most of us are impatient. We want to act, do something to help, and we often resort to the simplest solutions, without realizing that we are sometimes making things worse.

Take milkweed, for example, the only food for monarch caterpillars. Herbicide and weed control programs around roads and farmland have destroyed much of California's wild milkweed.

People became concerned about the king's plight and nursery wholesalers began planting a lot of tropical milkweed (Asclepias Corasavica) for Southern California gardeners decades ago. It is one of the most beautiful milkweed varieties, with long thin leaves and thick clusters of orange and yellow flowers, more like an ornamental plant than a classic weed. SoCal gardeners easily add plants to their yards to help butterflies and get a front-row seat to witness the wonders of metamorphosis, from tiny egg to caterpillar to cocoon to butterfly.

Which brings us to the reason behind the tropical milkweed problem in Southern California. See, tropical milkweed works well as food for caterpillars in colder parts of the United States, when it dies back during the winter, killing any parasites living on the plants. But in Southern California, tropical milkweed stays green and thriving year-round. Researchers at the Xerces Society believe that this species of evergreen milkweed disrupts the monarch's natural migration and allows the presence of harmful microscopic parasites – electrocystis, Or OE – to reproduce on plants. Monarch caterpillars end up eating a lot of this nasty parasite as they devour the leaves and researchers believe the OE makes the adults sick, messing with their lifespan, migration patterns and ability to reproduce.

Pink narrow-leaved milkweed next to orange tropical milkweed.

Pink narrow-leaved milkweed next to orange tropical milkweed.

(Getty Images)

Remember: pink is good, orange is bad
So, in the simplest terms, butterfly experts say California's native milkweed, with its pink, white and cream-colored flowers, is the best. Just We should plant milkweeds in Southern California, because they usually go dormant around December (which means the tops of the plants die but the roots survive), and grow back when things warm up in the spring, in April or May approx. In fact, one of the largest nurseries in the area, Roger's Gardens in Corona del Mar, stopped selling tropical milkweed altogether two years ago. General Manager Ron Vanderhoff says the nursery now only sells native milkweed and will again offer a milkweed exchange program sometime in April, giving customers one free narrow-leaf milkweed plant for a tropical milkweed plant they pull from their yard. .

You can find a list and photos of the native milkweeds that grow best in your area on the Xerces Society website. Narrow-leaved plants are the most common plants in nurseries, but some may also have other cultivars, such as the showy milkweed with pink flowers (Beautiful Asclepias), woolly milkweed (Asclepias Eriocarpa) with its clusters of cream-colored flowers, and the purple-flowered California milkweed (Asclepias ca).

But not in coastal areas
The Xerces Society now warns against cultivation any Milkweed thrives in coastal areas of SoCal because even native grasses remain green during mild winters, allowing the parasites to reproduce. Instead, she recommends that people in coastal areas, especially within five miles of wintering sites, focus on native California plants that Thrives In winter (November-January) and/or early spring (February-April), to provide nectar to adult monarch butterflies when they need it most. (Interesting note from a Xerces Society publication on protecting California butterfly groves: Monarchs need temperatures of 55 degrees or higher to fly, and cannot crawl helplessly on the ground unless they are unlucky enough to fall off. This This is why they tend to congregate on certain trees in temperate coastal areas, looking for places that protect them from wind, rain, and predators while providing enough warmth during the day so they can fly off to find food.)

Membership only
It is essential to ensure that the local plants you purchase are grown organically, without pesticides. Farmers say milkweed is the only food for monarch caterpillars, but it also attracts orange aphids, which are unsightly but harmless to the plant and the caterpillars. Some commercial growers use a systemic chemical pesticide on milkweed to discourage aphids, but this also makes the plant toxic to the caterpillars. Customers need to be sure they are buying from “specialized growers, who know how to control aphids without using harmful chemicals,” said Jose Cohen, owner of Moses Creek.

Showy milkweed (Asclepias speciosa)

showy milkweed (Beautiful Asclepias)

(DEA/C. DELU/De Agostini via Getty Images)

It is food, not decoration
Important note here: Aphids may seem disgusting but remember that we plant native milkweeds to create habitat for monarch caterpillars, not to decorate our yards. “You're not growing this for award-winning flowers,” Straka says.

“People need to know that some insects are OK, but they should expect that the caterpillars and aphids will completely wipe out the narrow-leaf milkweed. They'll eat this thing down to the stems, but that's OK because it's a food source.”

The good news is that gardeners should also plant plenty of nectar-producing native plants as well, to attract and maintain adult monarchs. So, if you're concerned about shabby-looking milkweed in your garden, surround those plants with beautiful flowering native shrubs and perennials, such as buckwheat, sage, sunflowers and yarrow. For more details, see the Xerces Society's list of royal nectarines native to California.

You can also check out Tree of Life Nursery about its butterfly kits of six monarch-friendly native plants, which will be available May 3, and the Theodore Payne Foundation, which is selling $60 monarch habitat kits at Sun Valley Nursery with everything you need to grow herbs Narrow-leaved milkweed and three native nectar plants from seed. (Director Evan Mayer says these sets are too heavy to ship, so they're only available in-store.)

Where do I buy?
The following Southern California nurseries specialize in native plants and expect to have at least one narrow-leaf milkweed available by mid-April. This is not a complete list; To check for more native plant growers in your area, visit the California Native Plant Society's CalScape website and be sure to check in with your local retail nurseries to see if and when they will be selling native milkweed and/or other flowering native plants.

Artemisia Nursery, 5068 Valley Blvd. In El Sereno,

California Botanical Garden Native Growth Nursery, 1500 N. College Ave. In Claremont,

Hahamongna Native Plant Nursery4550 Oak Grove Drive in Pasadena,

Moses Creek Nursery, Center Valley, near San Diego; Wholesale Farms is not open to the public but takes special orders online that are delivered to a partner retailer.

Roger Gardens2301 San Joaquin Hills Road, Corona del Mar,

Santa Barbara Botanical Garden Nursery, 1212 Mission Canyon Road in Santa Barbara,

Tudor Payne Foundation Nursery, 10459 Tuxford Street in Sun Valley,

Tree of Life Nursery33201 Ortega Highway in San Juan Capistrano,

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