Milkweed Flats

Milkweed flats.

No, it’s not a charming name for some geographical feature out here in the Wild West. Instead, it’s a possible remedy, though by no means a complete solution, for the imperiled  migrating North American Monarch butterfly.  Monarchwatch.org is an education, conservation and research organization benefitting the Monarch butterfly.  One of their newer projects is a “milkweed market” where they’re supplying flats of native milkweed plugs, specific to region, for sale to interested gardeners and citizen scientists.

The Monarch requires the milkweed, Asclepias, species for its survival.  The females lay their eggs on the milkweed plant, the larvae eat at that plant (and that plant ONLY).  The larvae form into the chrysalides, hatch into adults, and the cycle continues with the next breeding generation.  Adult Monarchs can feed from a variety of nectar sources, though they typically prefer native plants and wildflowers.  The larvae?  Those green/black/yellow cats only have jaws for milkweed.  All this eating, morphing, flying, and breeding occurs during the remarkable 2000-3000 mile yearly migration: winter in Mexico, flying through Texas in spring, then upwards through the mid-West to Canada in the summer, back again through Texas in autumn, finally to their mountain habitat in Mexico for winter.

The availability of native milkweed is in severe decline because of habitat destruction throughout the United States and Mexico, the use of Monsanto produced Roundup for the Roundup-resistant genetically modified seeds in the mid-West, (which has destroyed huge areas of not only native milkweed, but other flowering annuals and perennials), ongoing drought in Texas, as well as other changes in weather patterns. With declining milkweed, comes declining Monarch population.  Adding to those difficulties, “milkweed” is not a monolithic plant; its various species are endemic to particular areas and not easily propagated.

If I can beg further patience, I’ll get to the milkweed flats….

The most common milkweed species found in American plant nurseries is the Tropical Milkweed, Asclepias curassavica,  and is not native to the continental U.S.  I’ve never read why it’s the most commonly sold, I just assume it’s easiest to propagate and sell because it thrives in a wide range of situations.  Commercial nurseries are in the business to make money, so they’re most likely to sell a plant with a wide distribution, rather than plants that are regional, with more local appeal.  Native milkweed plants are just not readily available at most commercial nurseries. Though I should add that seeds are available for those who have the space and time to germinate and grow their own plants.

Tropical Milkweed, in certain areas of the southern U.S., pose an additional problem for migrating Monarchs (as if they don’t already have enough challenges!).  Most milkweed species die back during winter, re-emerging in spring to coincide with the Monarch migration northward.   Tropical Milkweed doesn’t die back in the South and can harbor disease which spreads to Monarchs when they lay their eggs for the larvae.  Tropical Milkweed is not the problem, per se, but milkweed that doesn’t die back in winter, is–or at least, the preliminary and ongoing research suggests that overwintering milkweed increases the manifestation and spread of OE, short for Ophryocystis elektroscirrha. OE is a protozoan parasite that cripples and kills Monarchs.  The current suggestion is that gardeners prune their Tropical Milkweed for winter, 2 inches above the ground, to limit the possibility of disease spread.  While OE is a problem, further study is required and scientists who study Monarchs concur that widespread herbicide use and habitat destruction play a more significant role in declining populations of these remarkable insects than any problems Tropical Milkweed might cause.

Monarch scientists and enthusiasts encourage planting milkweed specifically native to each eco-region of the U.S.

And that brings us to milkweed flats.

Monarchwatch.org is selling flats of 32 native-to-region milkweed plugs.  Each flat sells for $63-$69 (including shipping).  Click here for the milkweed market link for more information on their process of seed collection, ordering information and links to milkweed photos and descriptions.

Because the flats are a bit pricey and milkweed grows best in full sun and I don’t have lots of sun or gardening room for 32 milkweed plants (wish I did…), I’ve joined with two gardening friends in ordering one flat of native-to-where-we-live milkweed.  I still have six Tropical Milkweed specimens that I planted in 2014–it’s a valuable plant and I wouldn’t deny the migrating Monarchs nectar and larval food, but once my native milkweed plugs arrive and are planted, I’ll also have native milkweed in my garden available for their dining and brooding pleasures.

Wouldn’t it be cool if gardeners from the Rio Grande Valley all the way up to the Great Lakes purchased and shared flats of milkweed plugs?  Wouldn’t it be groovy to plant for the Monarchs, a solid path of nectar sources and nurseries, along their whole migration route?

Please support these efforts to help Monarchs.  Checkout the milkweed market of monarchwatch.org and consider planting native milkweed for Monarchs.  Encourage your local nurseries to supply native milkweed plants. Look at Native American Seed or Wildseed Farm, as additional seed sources.

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It’s all about the Monarch and its future.

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For more information, click on these links:

http://texasbutterflyranch.com/2014/12/03/q-a-grad-student-dara-satterfield-on-tropical-milkweed-and-monarch-butterflies/#comments

http://texasbutterflyranch.com/2014/11/24/nytimes-commercial-butterfly-breeders-raise-awareness-of-oe-to-help-monarch

http://switchboard.nrdc.org/blogs/sfallon/keep_calm_and_plant_milkweed.html

http://texasbutterflyranch.com/

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This Cat Has Nine Lives

Maybe not nine, but this cat,

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…has at least two or three.  This poor guy. He’s munching along, minding his own business, eating because that’s what he does and plop, he somehow ends up on the floor. I found him, dazed and confused, when I came home. No photo of that as I was scrambling to gently, very gently, pick him up and settle him back on the milkweed buffet.

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I set about my own projects and responsibilities and later checked again and…EEK!!! He’s fallen into the water where the milkweed stems rest. Again, no photo of him floating, but I quickly dumped the water out, set him on a paper towel and gently, oh so gently, began prodding him and blowing air on him to dry him out. I have no idea if this is what you do to a drowning caterpillar, but it feels right.  At least, it’s something I can do because  I know I can’t perform mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. Gross.

To prevent any more accidental dips in the reservoir, I added a paper towel protective layer to the top of the jar, poked the stems of milkweed through and resettled the last three caterpillars, including Mr. Nine Lives Cat.

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He was a little pokey to recover, but recover he did, gobbling up milkweed a short time later.  Here he is (the darker one) sharing stems with the other, who is also close to pupating.

IMGP2778.new I wonder if the darker coloring is a response to his near-drowning experience?  Probably not and I think his color was a little different before he decided to go for a swim, but there’s definitely a color differential between these two. Also, Mr. Nine Lives Cat also only has two, rather than the normal three, sets of antennae.  I don’t know about this guy–marching to a different drummer?.  Is that acceptable in the Lepidoptera larval world?

For the first part of the weekend, I watched him crawl around the top of the window,IMGP2789.new

…finally realizing that indeed, he’s not ready to change his caterpillar wardrobe for those of his winged self.  Honestly, he just seemed befuddled–like he’d lost his milkweed way. Saturday night I scooped him up and placed him back on the milkweed where he set about his eating routine.

Meanwhile Saturday night into Sunday, the other caterpillar began its morph, forming into the ‘J’.

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Fortuitously, during a brief Sunday afternoon Monarch check, I  came upon a chrysalis-in-the-making.

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IMGP2804.newI stood there, stupidly transfixed, before I collected myself enough to grab the camera for some shots, because the last morph doesn’t last long.  And it didn’t.

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Within a minute or so, the action was over.  You can see the difference between a newly formed pupa and one that is older.IMGP2806.new

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I’ve no idea what Mr. Nine Lives Cat is doing.  Still hanging around and not yet pupating.

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This little caterpillar died. Over the last few days, he stopped eating and succumb…to whatever caterpillars succumb to.  He’s the second of the nine larvae to die.

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This chrysalis has some kind of glitch.  Do you see the black spot?

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It also appears to have sustained a little tear as well.  I don’t know whether I bumped it or if something else occurred, but it’ll be interesting to observe any anomalies in its butterfly evolution.

This chrysalis (to the left) was the first to pupate and is darkening, which means that the butterfly is in its last developmental stages and it’s a matter of day(s) before emergence.

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At least I hope that’s what the darkening means.

Our weather forecast is conducive to butterfly release over the next week or so.  Next stop?  Butterflies!