The Monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus) is an amazing insect, which is famous for its incredible migratory habits as well as being accredited for its great beauty. It brings pure joy to the heart to see it in flight as it glides through the air on its large black-veined orange-red wings or stops to sip nectar from a flower.
But sadly the Monarch's numbers have been dropping fast due to a combination of climate change, habitat destruction, the use of pesticides, and the lack of foodplants for its caterpillars, which can only eat species in the Milkweed family (Asclepiadaceae). However, this means that gardeners in any country where Monarchs live can help conserve the species by growing these attractive plants in their gardens.
Monarch's migrate in spring all the way from Mexico and the Southern States of North America right up as far as Canada and then repeat this in a long return journey when they fly south to overwinter.
There are many species of Milkweed that grow grow in the cooler north and in the tropical heat of the south. Female Monarchs do not care what the type is just as long as it's an Asclepias it will do fine as somewhere to lay its eggs and feed its striped caterpillars.
The Showy Milkweed (A. speciosa) is a type that can be grown in the more northern States, and the Tropical or Scarlet Milkweed (A.currassavica) is a species that does well in the warm climates. Milkweed will grow well in large flowerpots or in large windowboxes if you have no access to a proper garden, and, of course, the foodplant can be grown in containers on a roof-garden or balcony.
Fortunately, in response to a growing awareness of the layout of this beautiful but endangered insect, millions of people are doing what they can to help and there are now very many websites that can easily be found by searching online that will provide Milkweed seeds. Some of these sites also supply small ready-germinated plants, and others have a wide variety of Milkweed species to choose from. There are even sites that supply seeds free of charge as long as you send a SASE.
Monarch caterpillars are very greedy and eat a lot of leaves. They will even consume the flowers and seed pods, although the plants will usually sprout again. The more Milkweed plants you grow the more caterpillars you will be able to support.
To watch the stages of the Monarch's lifecycle is a wonderful experience as you see the colorful striped caterpillars ever change into jade-green chrysalises before their final transformation into the glorious winged adult. Just before they hatch another real miracle happens because the red and black of the newly-formed wings get stronger and stronger in color and can be seen clearly through the transparent wing cases of the chrysalis.
To see this happen in your own garden brings a real sense of having done something positive to help one of Mother Nature's most beautiful creatures to survive. If you have plenty of flowers growing the chances are that the adult Monarchs will stay a while too. If they do, it's as if they are saying thank you!